OCEAN SHORES, Jan. 29.—After 17 years in public life, former attorney general and gubernatorial candidate Rob McKenna says he’s going to be returning to the private sector as an attorney – offering advice and support for his fellow Republicans, but by no means making plans for a return bout with Gov. Jay Inslee in 2016.
McKenna, 50, shunned requests for interviews after the election, but over the last week he has been offering his public farewells, now that the inauguration has passed and a new attorney general has taken his place. The candidate whom many considered the Republican Party’s brightest hope for ending the Democrats’ lock on the governor’s mansion mounted the best-organized campaign since the blue streak began in 1984. His moderate and thorough reform agenda energized the party’s center and the business community, and even drew support from middle-of-the-road Democrats. But in the end, McKenna missed it by that much. He wound up with 48.5 percent of the vote.
His loss has left Republicans shaken and wondering if they ever can win in a state that appears to be colored dark blue. They might dominate Washington’s wide-open spaces, but the overwhelming Democratic vote in the city of Seattle can swamp a statewide election – and certainly it did on Nov. 6. McKenna spoke with Washington State Wire last weekend in Ocean Shores, where he was moderating a panel discussion at the Republicans’ annual Roanoke Conference. McKenna says he thinks the party can rebuild, but it is going to take a national effort by Republicans to remake their brand to appeal to the average voter – including those who live within the Seattle city limits. And it will have to defeat the other team’s efforts to define the GOP as a party of the rich that excludes minorities and wages war on women.
“I think we have to have a change nationally and the Republican image needs to improve,” he says. “Republicans nationally have to become more successful in appealing to younger voters, people of color, recent immigrants – we are not doing that well enough right now. I don’t think the problem is so much with the Republican Party in our state. We ran great, well-qualified candidates, moderates in most cases whom voters say they want to see on the ballot. But it came down to party I.D. at the end.
“Three percent is a close race, but obviously not close enough. So we’re not that far off from success. But until we improve with those voter groups in the country and in our state, it is very hard to run statewide. I think that will change when the national tides shift again. And what we have to do in our state to get ready for that is to continue to put up very well-qualified candidates who connect with average voters. And there is a lot of good news on that front – look at some of the enormously talented people coming up right now in the Legislature on the Republican side. There’s a lot of reason for optimism.”
Never Say Never
Count McKenna out, at least for now and at least in a formal way. There remain many who regard the two-term attorney general as the state Republican Party’s best hope in 2016. In fact, as the 450-odd Republicans who gathered at Ocean Shores last weekend conducted their straw poll for the next presidential race, the College Republicans trooped to the mike to place McKenna’s name in nomination. But McKenna certainly isn’t thinking along those lines, and says he has no plans for another gubernatorial bid – never saying never, but definitely not saying yes.
“For the next several years I want to focus on my legal career and my family, and just take a break from that,” he says. “It’ll be good to go back and recharge my batteries in the private sector.”
McKenna says he is talking with several law firms about re-establishing himself in business and regulatory law, as he practiced from 1988 to 1996 at the prominent Seattle firm of Perkins Coie, before he entered politics as a King County councilman. With three wins before the U.S. Supreme Court under his belt, he says appellate litigation also may be in the cards. He points out he has a family to support – and a legal career will allow him to remain involved in politics as a volunteer.
More Polarization Than Ever
It might seem odd to call McKenna’s campaign the strongest of the last few decades. Republican Dino Rossi actually came closer to winning in 2004. Recount after recount that year finally gave Democrat Christine Gregoire a razor-thin 133-vote margin of victory. Yet McKenna arguably had more going for him than Rossi did – a strong statewide rep after two terms as the state’s most prominent statewide elected Republican, enthusiastic backing from the state-party organization and from Republicans at the statehouse, and a well-oiled organization that spent two years building support among every conceivable constituency. McKenna’s campaign budget was double Rossi’s, and that doesn’t count the heavy independent spending from national GOP organizations. When the starting gun went off in June 2011 and both McKenna and Inslee announced their campaigns, polls gave McKenna a whopping lead, by as many as nine points, and he held it for a year.
So what went wrong? McKenna attributes the loss to the Republican Party’s fortunes nationally, and an increasing polarization in the electorate. It is seen most particularly in the city of Seattle, where he won a niggling 21 percent of the vote. “In 2012 I received just about every endorsement out there from editorial boards, ran the strongest campaign that any Republican has for governor in our lifetimes, received more votes than any Republican for governor in our history – but it wasn’t enough. What we saw was people taking a hard line based on party I.D., and although one in eight Obama voters crossed over to vote for me, it wasn’t quite enough.
“You saw it in other races as well. It wasn’t just in the race for governor. In the race for secretary of state, Kim Wyman literally received every endorsement out there, and had Democratic and Republican county auditors endorsing her – yet she barely won. So it didn’t matter that she wasn’t running for governor. She is very moderate on social issues – she came out in favor of Referendum 74 [the gay-marriage ballot measure].
“So we’ve seen a polarization in the electorate, and you can trace it back to hard feelings about President Bush and the war in Iraq, strong feelings about President Obama on both sides. It is really quite striking. I think those were the core causes. All of Inslee’s margin of victory came out of just two legislative districts in Seattle, the 36th and the 43rd; I carried a majority of the other 47 districts added together. And so that is a very telling fact, when you think about the challenges of winning statewide in a presidential year for a Republican.”
Of course there are natural advantages on the Democratic side and natural weaknesses within the Republican Party. The Democratic ground game – the party’s organized efforts to reach out to voters and target them with specific messages in the final weeks of the campaign — is enhanced by a base that is concentrated in a single city. “I have to give credit to the Democrats for working the turnout very, very hard in the city of Seattle,” McKenna says. “It is a little easier to do, because those are dense neighborhoods and because such a high percentage of people will just vote one party, you can just go door-to-door and try to turn out every single person and know that four-fifths of them will vote for the Democrat. King County looks a lot like Multnomah County in terms of the effect it has, but it is not so much King County as it is the city of Seattle – so that is where the problem is.”
Republicans meanwhile face the traditional divide between moderates and conservatives, which has been seen to varying degrees in every election for more than 50 years. McKenna notes that intraparty divisions are a fact of political life – the Democrats saw the same sort of split in 1972 as the ascendant McGovern faction sent centrists fleeing, and in 2000, when the Green-Party split helped give George W. Bush his victory margin. But right now McKenna acknowledges the division within the Republican Party is deep. “It is a bigger challenge for Republicans,” he says. “These events occur in long waves historically, and we are in the negative phase right now in terms of our ability to hold things together. The presidential campaign in 2012 on the Republican side both reinforced and accentuated deeply conservative positions in our party, and that might work in a red state, but it makes it very hard for Republicans running in blue states, not just in Washington but in Oregon and California, even in Montana and other states where you thought we might have had more success.”
What it meant in Washington was that Democrats were able to adopt national campaign themes and tar all Republicans with the same brush. In perhaps the most generic attack of the campaign, Inslee even issued a brochure denouncing McKenna as “another Olympia politician,” neglecting the fact that the same might be said for every lawmaker in Inslee’s own party, and failing to mention that Inslee aspired to become one himself. “The Democrats were very adroit at pushing emotional hot buttons and creating a fictional war, falling back on tried and true messages,” McKenna says. “On the conservative side, I’m sure there were many who stayed home – I don’t know how many there were, but that probably contributed to lower voter turnout in conservative areas of the state. It is a very big challenge for parties or coalitions, and you have to find ways to keep your base together while expanding your reach. It is not an easy thing to accomplish.”
Will be ‘Active Observer’
The big fiscal issues McKenna identified during the campaign aren’t going away – particularly the state’s declining support for higher education. And that’s something that bothers him. As the state diverts spending to other programs, fast-rising college tuition has essentially imposed a tax on college-bound youth and their parents, making a college degree increasingly unaffordable for many, he says. Tuition at the University of Washington was $687 a year when McKenna enrolled as a freshman; today it is nearly $12,000; by the end of the decade, at the current rate of increase, he says it may top $20,000.
“We really have lost sight of why higher education is important, and you are starting to see a disturbing trend line,” he says. “Admissions are dropping, applications are dropping; fewer people are going to college because they can’t afford it. They come out of school with a huge amount of debt, and at the same time the higher education model is rapidly becoming obsolete.”
And it doesn’t seem like the situation will turn around anytime soon, he says. As he watched the opening acts of this year’s Legislature, no one seemed to be talking about higher ed: Inslee didn’t make it a priority in his inaugural address; Republicans didn’t emphasize it in their opening press conference. But such are the frustrations of those who watch from the sidelines. McKenna says he hopes Inslee is able to follow through on his promises to make government more efficient, fully fund K-12 education and avoid tax increases – but only time will tell.
“You know, I’ll just sit back and watch, and certainly I will be an active observer and stay involved in education-reform issues and continue to advocate for higher education funding and K-12 funding. I think it is important that all those who care about those issues remain engaged and hold the governor’s feet to the fire, and the Legislature’s as well.
“This is the state that I have adopted, moving here as a kid, and where I am raising my family, and so I want this administration to be successful in achieving improvements to education and sustainability, just as I would any administration. Jay Inslee has devoted a good deal of his life to public service, and I have to respect that. And you know, you don’t ever want to wish someone not to be successful. He wasn’t my choice, but he won. You want whoever is president to be successful so we can save the nation. It is sort of like that for governor as well.”