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Washington State Republicans chart a path forward: The factions [Part 1]

Loren Culp’s loss in 2020 marked the tenth consecutive for Republican gubernatorial candidates in Washington State. At the national level, former President Donald Trump’s tempestuous exit from the White House continues to ignite conversations among Republicans about the future of their party.

State Republican Party Chair Caleb Heimlich promised after the election that the party would overhaul its entire strategy and “look at all options.”

In press conferences following the election and over the course of Trump’s second impeachment, leading elected Republicans in Washington State avoided talk of “the other Washington” and attempted to stay focused on local issues. But for those who embarked on ill-fated campaigns to join the ranks of elected Republicans, the party’s inability to narrow Democratic majorities in the Legislature and break through in statewide races has renewed calls for a change of course.

“Last year we saw in the election that there was a lot of division in the state of Washington. And my concern is, what is our path forward for the Republican Party? I know that many others throughout Washington State saw exactly what I saw – that being divided only leads to loss,” said Joshua Freed, Chair of the King County Republican Party.

To the extent there was intraparty strife last year, Freed had a front row seat. He was a gubernatorial candidate himself before losing to Culp in the primary. After the primary, he launched a long shot write-in campaign for lieutenant governor, but that also wasn’t meant to be.

Freed says his experience as a candidate affirmed his belief that unity is a prerequisite for victory in a state where Republicans have little margin for error.

I don’t think the path forward is going to be a path of division saying that a patriot type wing or a mainstreamer type wing is our path forward. Those type of factions bring fractures to the party. I think what you’ll see moving forward is a Republican Party that is moving forward in unity on core conservative values.” 

When asked to specify those values, Freed said, “We are a party of ideals. We believe in the constitution. We believe in law and order. We believe in individual liberties and we are the party that stands up for those.”

Freed also believes strongly that Republicans need to remain laser focused on local issues. “We are a party that believes in local control. I’m not gonna take my dictates on high and my messages on high from the RNC, we’re gonna listen to the citizens that are desperately calling out for conservative solutions.”

In separate interviews, Freed and several other individuals involved in Republican state politics agreed that all pathways to electoral success in the state narrow without unity among right-leaning voters of all stripes. But some were less sanguine than Freed about the willingness of different factions within the party to reconcile their differences.

Take Chris Gergen, who was Loren Culp’s campaign manager.

Unfortunately, I think it’s very difficult for constitutional-minded Republicans and establishment Republicans to find very much common ground with your mainstream Republicans. Because with some of these issues, you’re either pro-life or you’re not. Either you’re pro-Second Amendment or you’re not. These are black and white issues and it’s hard to find common ground on issues that are genuinely important to conservative voters. It becomes very difficult to chart a path forward with all three groups.”

From Gergen’s perspective, there are three predominant factions within the party. He calls the first faction either “Constitutional Republicans” or “Traditional Conservatives.” They’re about small government and low taxes, and they’re “pro-Second Amendment, pro-constitution.” These are the voters that turned out for Culp in the primary and put him over the top, Gergen continued.

The idea of ‘it’s all about the persuadables and the base will follow’ is not true. People in Eastern Washington feel like their voices don’t matter and the only voices that matter are in King County, Pierce County, Snohomish County, maybe Clark County and then that’s it.”

Tapping into those voices is what Gergen believes gave Culp the boost he needed to break away from the pack in a crowded primary.

“People say, ‘oh Loren lost by a huge margin.’ Ok, I’ll concede that point. But just when you look at the raw data of conservatives who supported Loren, it is a staggering number. And it shows just how many conservatives there are in Washington State that are ready to be involved that were never involved in the past.”

Culp declined to be interviewed for this story.

Next, he describes the type of people who voted for Freed as “Establishment Republicans.”

“They’re in the party, identify with the party, come in lockstep with the party,” said Gergen. These would be the voters who Freed was able to turn out in King County – the only county where he managed to beat Culp.

Gergen didn’t say whether he feels most elected Republicans in the state would be considered “Establishment Republicans,” nor did he say whether he believes elected officials are partial to one faction over another. But he did claim that the Republican leadership in Olympia was unreceptive to Culp’s campaign.

[House Minority Leader J.T.] Wilcox and [Senate Minority Leader] Braun were of no help whatsoever, though we did reach out to both the House and the Senate caucus a few times, but they were not interested. And Mr. Wilcox had sent a snarky text message to Mr. Culp back in March after an event that we had with Sheriff David Clarke of Wisconsin.”

Gergen says that Wilcox’s primary opponent showed up at the event and was permitted to speak on stage for a few minutes, which peeved the Minority Leader. His primary opponent was Matt Marshall, leader of the far right Washington State Three Percenters group.

To be fair, [Wilcox] had been attacked incessantly by conservatives, Three Percenters and so forth. Matt Marshall was one of the founders of the Three Percent movement in Washington State. Having him on our platform wasn’t a statement for or against the Three Percent group. He was there as a candidate and we wanted to share the wealth with other people running. But Wilcox took it as Loren siding with all those groups that were attacking him. That wasn’t the case, but frankly we didn’t have the time or the inclination to explain ourselves.”

As for the third faction, this group is who Freed and Gergen refer to as the “Mainstreamers” or “Mainstream Republicans.” According to Gergen, these voters are liberal Republicans who are pro-choice and don’t mind gun control. The stand in for these voters, in both moniker and ideological disposition, is a political organization called the Mainstream Republicans of Washington (MRW).

According to MRW’s website, the organization believes that “social issues should be depoliticized, so that government can focus on fiscal responsibility through balancing the budget and boosting the economy.”

The MRW Advisory Board includes political giants like former Governor Dan Evans, former US Senator Slade Gorton, former Attorney General Rob McKenna, and current officers holders like Wilcox and Secretary of State Kim Wyman.

While Traditional Conservatives and Establishment Republicans have their differences, Gergen says a joint disdain for Mainstreamers has been a source of unity. “There’s no love lost between the Culp Organization and Mr. Freed’s organization, just from some things that went on during the primary. And we have found ourselves as strange bedfellows,” said Gergen.

Indeed, following Culp’s victory in the primary, Freed wrote on Facebook that “Washington is in a very dangerous position right now on multiple levels with the only true hope coming from God.”

This point of common ground, as Gergen describes it, is driven by a shared dissatisfaction with those considered to be tokens of Northwest moderation.

From what I have seen, there is a lot of dislike and distrust and disgust from establishment-minded Republicans as well as traditional-conservative Republicans for the mainstream Slade Gorton – God rest his soul – type of Republicans. You even see that with the Secretary of State. I think she kind of fits in that Mainstream Republican role. She’s taking a lot of incoming fire from the establishment. And these are rank-and-file Republicans. These are company guys and gals. They’re not happy with how she’s handled things.”

Wyman, who is now the only statewide Republican elected official on the West Coast, refused to lend credence to Culp’s unproven claims of widespread election fraud. Culp lobbed his election fraud allegations at the same time Trump was pushing similar theories following the presidential election and leading up to the January 6th insurrection at the United States Capitol.

Amid a short-lived lawsuit Culp waged against Wyman, she said that there is “absolutely no evidence that any fraud occurred that would change the will of the voters,” and that “Culp and his campaign manager make these outlandish claims that have no basis in fact.” 

As reported above, Gergen conceded in an interview with the Wire that Culp had “lost by a huge margin.”

Around the same time, Washington State’s elections director ended up on a website that included images of officials – with crosshairs over their profiles, and home and email addresses – who the site creators said had “aided and abetted the fraudulent election against Trump.”

Wilcox and Senate Minority Leader John Braun issued a statement affirming their confidence in the 2020 election results and the work of Wyman, which Gergen views as an understandable, yet politically clumsy decision.

When the voter fraud thing came out, J.T. Wilcox circled the wagon around her, as did the Senate Minority Leader. And I understand why they did that. They’re all elected officials and that puts them into a tough, vulnerable space to where they only really have two choices. They can either be quiet and not say anything or step out and to defend the Secretary, as they all did. I think that was possibly the wrong decision. I know if I were consulting them I would have told them to be quiet. Just don’t say anything. Don’t say anything. Because there’s no right answer to that politically for those guys.”

In an interview with the Wire at the time, Wyman said the divisions within the party had been causing her to question her place within it.

The party has gone through this before. In 1964 with Goldwater, we had the John Birch Society and these very powerful right wing interests that took over the party for a time, and we’re at one of those periods now.”

If Wyman’s self-questioning indicated a desire to see the party move in a more moderate direction – a direction in line with MRW’s vision for the party – Freed’s post-election self-questioning indicated the opposite.

“We’re the party that in 2010 overwhelmingly took back the House when we stood on core Republican principles. Compromising is not the path forward for the Republican Party. It’s truly putting forward our solutions that we know actually work and not being embarrassed about them, but boldly speaking them, with a level head,” said Freed.

In mid-January, as Freed published statements on social media calling for all factions of the party to come together, he also wrote that Wyman’s comments regarding her place within the party “fuel the narrative of concern which many people have expressed.”

“Kim, We are the party that elected you, don’t turn your back but rather stand with the party of the Republic and Constitution,” wrote Freed on Facebook.

A few days before that, Freed called on MRW to disband immediately or remove the name Republican from their name:

Their existence is causing unnecessary division in the Republican Party. Such division is not constructive but rather damaging. I invite you to join us and not continue to seek to divide. Remove the name Republican from your name or completely dissolve. Factions bring fractions and the evidence of broken elections for 20 years in Washington is clearly evidence in the primary of 2020.”

Freed wrote the post on Facebook two days after former MRW Chair Mike Vaska published an op-ed in the Seattle Times calling on Republicans in Washington State to “once again summon the courage to rebuild [the] party in the aftermath of national disgrace.”

In his post, Freed falsely attributed a quote to Vaska, which the latter included in his op-ed. The quote was actually delivered by former Gov. Dan Evans at the 1965 state convention: “The Republican Party did not achieve greatness nor will it regain greatness by being the party of radicalism or of the lunatic fringe.” 

Nevertheless, Freed maintains that embracing core conservative principles will yield better opportunities for messaging, and subsequently, better electoral outcomes.

I would say that 80% of the party would call themselves core conservatives. Meaning they wouldn’t say they’re far right wingers and they wouldn’t say they’re mainstreamers or far left of the Republican Party … I think there’s been a push over the last several years to step away from core conservative values which has now put us in the position that it has. Moving forward with that status quo approach will only make us more irrelevant in the state.”

When asked to account for why the party went from nominating establishment favorite Bill Bryant in 2016 to the populist conservative Culp in 2020 if a push to move away from core conservative values was underway, Freed said that the party has not moved away from conservative values, but has stopped communicating them in an effective way.

Gergen agreed that communication is central to the party’s shortcomings, particularly among non-white voters.

Conservatives are not doing a good job at listening to what voters need and what voters want … We’ve been put on the defense by the Democrats to be afraid to have certain conversations that we should be having. We should be talking to Black voters, to Latino voters, to minority groups. We should be talking to suburban women. We should be talking to urbanites and millennials.”

When Republicans don’t provide skeptical voters with a narrative, a narrative is provided for them. And to the extent that this issues persists, Gergen thinks Republicans need not look past the mirror.

I think not having these conversations opens Republicans up to be branded by the left in a way that is blatantly untrue or is maybe unfair. And we just allow them to do it. For me, it’s not the fault of the left, it’s the fault of the right. Until we own our own problems, until we look and see where the baby’s ugly, we can’t fix it.” 

When asked in separate interviews to name a Washington State Republican with strong political promise, both Freed and Gergen named Matt Larkin – the Republican nominee for Attorney General in 2020. Larkin is rumored to be considering a run for Congress.


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