By Rob McKenna
Newspapers can still surprise, and I was certainly surprised to see last Wednesday’s Herald editorial (July 31, “The GOP Needs McKenna”) nominating me to be the next chair of the Washington State Republican Party. While I appreciate the encouragement from many Republicans across the state — and The Herald — I will not be running for party chair. I’ve just returned to private law practice as a partner at Orrick, Herrington &Sutcliffe, and my professional focus is there.
As one who has run three statewide campaigns and helped many other candidates, however, I do have thoughts on what kind of leader the state GOP needs to build on its strengths and improve performance. The next state chair need look no further than the national party’s post-mortem report on the 2012 election for a grounding in how the party must grow. In short, the GOP must do a better job of expressing our message of growth and opportunity for all.
We need a Washington state party chair with three key skills:
1. Deep experience with grassroots organization, to provide county party organizations and precinct committee officers with the tools they need to identify, engage and turn out voters. The Obama campaign’s grassroots and technology operations bested Republican efforts at every level. State parties implement these programs, so the next state chair must strongly advocate for modernizing GOP outreach efforts to match and exceed the Obama campaign’s accomplishments.
2. Strong communications skills, to explain the essential differences between Democrats and Republicans, and what voters can expect from each. For instance, if every voter who supported me last year also voted for the initiative to require a two-thirds legislative vote for tax increases, that still meant at least 400,000 other people voted “yes” to make it harder for Olympia to raise your taxes while also voting for a gubernatorial candidate who called the two-thirds rule “undemocratic,” and this year sought a $1 billion-plus tax increase. The next state party chair must effectively and strongly highlight such examples of Democratic leaders blithely defying the popular will, and ignoring their own campaign promises.
3. The ability to raise the money necessary to successfully implement these infrastructure and communications efforts. There’s nothing glamorous about this task — it requires hard work, persistence and a fundraising track record.
If the next party chair possessed these skills, the state GOP will expand its reach to voters across economic, demographic and geographic lines. In my 2012 campaign, we built a real presence in Seattle and among minority communities statewide. Such efforts can’t just be at election time, as those communities need to see Republican involvement year-round, every year.
I appreciated how a writer at FOX News Latino summed up our messaging opportunity to these communities: “If you’re willing to defend liberty and champion growth and opportunity, if you believe in a smaller, more efficient government that lives within its means and answers to the people, then you have a home in the Republican Party.”
Locally, the GOP can strongly contrast itself with Democratic leaders who have controlled the governor’s mansion for 29 years now, and led at least one legislative house in 27 of those years. Under their control, college tuition has skyrocketed and we’re under court order to fully fund our public schools. The Republican mantra to “Fund Education First” isn’t just popular with voters, it’s the right thing to do.
Many pundits insist the GOP needs a “rebranding.” But an emphasis on “growth and opportunity” isn’t rebranding, it’s a return to fundamentals. Not only do those words capture our party’s core principles, it’s a message that fits our times. With Obamacare failing to lower health care costs, and Boeing unsure that Washington is where build the 777X, a growth and opportunity message will resonate with voters.
As the Washington GOP chooses its next leader, we should bear in mind Ronald Reagan’s belief that, “The person who agrees with you 80 percent of the time is a friend and an ally — not a 20 percent traitor.” On the campaign trail, most people didn’t agree with me on 100 percent of issues but we were united by broad principles. A united, energized Republican Party wouldn’t just be good politics, it would be good for Washington state.
Rob McKenna served as Washington’s Attorney General from 2005 until 2013. He was the Republican nominee for governor in 2012.