The Washington state Republican party should look to Rob McKenna to transform itself into an inclusive and relevant force in Washington politics, especially on the Republican-lonely west side.
Republican Party Chair Kirby Wilbur, who poobahed the state GOP since 2011, announced his resignation Monday. Wilbur is headed to Washington, D.C., to work for a conservative group, the Young America Foundation.
While Wilbur entertained reporters with canny sound bites, he didn’t leave his party stronger. The only statewide elected Republican is Secretary of State Kim Wyman, and the state Senate only swung Republican thanks to two Democratic defectors. Granted, Wilbur can’t shoulder blame for evolving demographics and a voter tendency to conflate national Republicans with local and state officeholders.
McKenna, Washington’s well-regarded former attorney general who lost a gubernatorial bid to Jay Inslee in 2012, is the kind of sensible-center Republican that Democrats and Independents respect. McKenna’s non-doctrinaire style also might be his undoing in a run for chair. The Democrats’ favorite Republican is like the Republicans’ favorite Democrat — persona non grata among party faithful.
Parties are animated by activists and activists operate on the margins. Read through the Democratic and Republican party platforms to get a taste. Republicans come off as anti-immigrant knuckle draggers; Democrats as statist Quakers with a pot plant in every yard.
A winning party needs to be more than the sum of its parts. McKenna has the leadership and savvy to articulate a clear, strong message and revive a pragmatic, female-friendly, third-way tradition manifested by Dan Evans, Sam Reed and Ralph Munro. (The one trouble with the Evans/Reed/Munro meme is it gets trotted out every election by nostalgic scribes, but is never realized.)
Taking the party reins may not be in McKenna’s professional interest. He currently practices law and launched a web forum, www.smartergovernmentwa.org, to float and debate policy. Party chairs need to play the bulldog and that will alienate the very nonpartisans McKenna needs to cultivate if he runs again for governor.
The late Jennifer Dunn offers an inspired counter example. Dunn went from Republican chair to service in the U.S. Congress. Serving as a bridge-building party chief can in fact be a springboard to higher office.
Is it better to elbow change from without or within? If McKenna opts for without and Republicans tap a garden-variety hack, there will be little need to hold a press conference. Reporters can recite the boilerplate from memory.