State GOP eyes 2016 as it elects a new leader

Gov. Jay Inslee is enjoying a two-week vacation hiking in Alaska, probably thinking little about a second term.

But a decision will be made in Spokane next week that could cause him havoc should he pursue re-election in 2016.

That’s when 117 Republicans, three from each of Washington’s 39 counties, will gather to elect a new leader of the state’s Grand Old Party.

While it’s only August 2013, the person chosen will be looked upon to design then pour a foundation strong enough to support a viable challenger to Inslee, who has had a rocky few months at the helm including a near-miss shutdown of state government.

A carload of candidates are vying to become the boss. Early projections put two women, Luanne Van Werven of Lynden and Susan Hutchison of Seattle, in the driver’s seat.

Van Werven is the acting chairwoman of the Washington State Republican Party, filling in when Kirby Wilbur skipped out to a new job. Hutchison, executive director of a Seattle foundation, ran unsuccessfully for King County executive in 2009.

Whoever wins — and it could be someone else — will receive a to-do list familiar to every Republican Party chairman before them. And for that matter every Democratic Party chairman as well.

It calls upon the leader to:

•Raise lots of money and spend it wisely;

Deliver the Republican message clearly and constantly to the media and the masses;

Supply the grass roots with data and dollars for training and deploying volunteers;

Keep peace among the partisans.

Arguably, the last task is the trickiest if not most important.

Washington Republicans’ tendency of late is to pull apart rather than together in the crunch time of elections. Curbing this habit is a Herculean chore requiring a blend of personal finesse and political fierceness.

Consider two symptomatic snapshots from 2012.

Shortly after the primary, tension sifted through a Republican phone bank operation in Everett when backers of defeated gubernatorial candidate Shahram Hadian resisted making calls on behalf of the party’s nominee, Rob McKenna. Hadian ran to the philosophical right of McKenna and his followers found the former attorney general too liberal for their tastes.

Fast forward to the final days of the campaign when a fundraising letter signed by party icon Dino Rossi went out on Washington State Republican Party stationery. Rossi didn’t make the pitch for McKenna but for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. Apparently Romney asked and McKenna didn’t even though McKenna had a shot at winning and Romney did not.

Neither occurrence cost McKenna victory. Rather, they expose a damning problem the incoming leader inherits: Washington Republicans too often allow the personal to become political and it impedes the party’s accomplishments.

Paul Elvig of Everett, a former Snohomish County Republican Party chairman, recently stepped to the sidelines after half-a-century on the front lines of partisan battles.

He characterized Republicans’ challenge this way: “They need to learn to like each other and not be suspect of each other’s motives.”

Democrats, on the other hand, grin and bury it.

Party members do get frustrated with antics of their chairman, Dwight Pelz. And lawmakers and influence peddlers of the Democratic stripe were flummoxed by Inslee on many occasions.

But if any are worried about the governor’s vulnerability three-and-a-half years from now, they aren’t going to pipe it out to the public.

Such self-inflicted damage would be tougher to overcome than an attack by a political opponent. They know unity right up through election time — even if some Democrats do so with gritted teeth — pays better dividends.

Change takes time.

As Inslee vacations with re-election far from his thoughts, Republicans are getting to ready to make a decision with Nov. 8, 2016, foremost in their minds.

Political reporter Jerry Cornfield’s blog, The Petri Dish, is at Contact him at 360-352-8623 or

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