GOP sees hope, change coming in months before vote

OLYMPIA — Though ballots for November’s election won’t go out for months, Republicans are feeling good and Democrats are a bit queasy about what might happen.

Activists in both parties expect voters will reshape the political landscape in 2010 with Republicans gaining seats in the state Legislature and Congress.

They say it’s too early to know if the aftermath will resemble the tsunami of 1994 that wiped out Democrats nationally or the wave of 2006 that washed Republicans out of power — except this time the GOP will be surfing back in.

“It is hard to predict. There is no doubt that this is going to be a good year for Republicans with the only question being how good of a year,” said state Republican Party Chairman Luke Esser.

Historically, the party in power in the White House loses seats in Congress in the first mid-term election following selection of a new president. Similar fate often awaits the president’s party in state races.

“Assuming that, at this point in time, the atmospherics don’t bode well for Democrats on April 3,” said veteran consultant Ron Dotzauer of Snohomish, who has primarily advised Democrats. “Wait 48 hours. You never know in this business.”

Bill Phillips, chairman of the Snohomish County Democratic Party, anticipates fewer Democrats holding office around the country come November.

“Do I see a reason to sulk because there’s a big wave coming? No,” he said. “If they are looking to takeover the House and takeover the Senate, they will be disappointed on election night.”

Republicans feel winds of change at their back for several reasons.

Foremost is the mood of voters frustrated by Democrats in charge in Olympia and Washington, D.C. A backlash is looming.

“From the voters’ view of lawmaking, Democrats control everything, so everything that’s gone bad in the last two years all gets associated with Democrats,” said Chris Strow, a former Republican state lawmaker from Whidbey Island.

Stoking the intensity of voters’ emotions are specific issues such as passage of a national health care bill, which polls show many people dislike, and anticipated state tax increases.

Toss in spending in the state and federal government the last couple of years and it’s “nearly destroyed the Democratic brand,” said Senate Minority Leader Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla.

National worry about unemployment and the economy and the direction of the country also will affect elections in Washington, said Republican stalwart Paul Elvig of Everett.

In 2006, an electorate angered with President George W. Bush and the Iraq War pushed the Republican Party into the minority in Congress and unseated six GOP state lawmakers in Olympia.

This year, self-described independent voters who helped elect President Barack Obama are showing signs of disappointment with him, further boosting the confidence in the GOP ranks.

“If Republicans nationalize this campaign, it could be explosive for the Democrats across the nation and set in motion a sweep through the state,” Elvig said, noting that’s what happened in 1994 but not quite as much in 2006.

Today in Olympia, Democrats hold 61 of 98 seats in the House of Representatives and 31 of 49 in the Senate. Republicans haven’t controlled either chamber in seven years but a testy electorate could turn the party’s fortunes quickly since all House seats and nearly half in the Senate are up this year.

Add in a dose of fervor from the tea party movement and Republican leaders can’t hide their smiles. Though tea partiers operate outside the party structure, they are agitating for, among other things, smaller government and lower taxes that fit neatly into the message of many GOP candidates in 2010.

Republican Attorney General Rob McKenna witnessed the potential at a rally in Olympia last week. At least 1,000 people cheered him loudly for fighting the federal health care law via the courts. McKenna can only hope the energy and attitude carries into 2012 when he’s likely to run for governor.

Party leaders think such enthusiasm could carry Republican favorite Dino Rossi past U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., should he decide to make a challenge this fall. It could certainly prove decisive in helping Republicans with name identity or ties to the tea party movement running in less-visible races.

Republicans think they have strong candidates who can make clear the ideological distinction between themselves and their Democrat opponents – incumbent or not.

Alex Hays, executive director of Mainstream Republicans of Washington, said this is a better quality crop than 1994 with many holding centrist views which will be attractive to moderate-minded independents.

“These candidates are not as flamboyant as tea party participants but they will have a much more profound effect this election,” he said.

Overall Republicans are in a good position at this point but can’t be complacent as November is a long ways away, Hewitt said.

“Still, if I were a Democrat, I wouldn’t see any silver lining at all,” he said.

Democrats see plenty of rays of hope.

The economy is the potential brightest of them all. As the party in power during the downturn, they suffer amongst voters wanting things to get better. If there are signs of turnaround, voters’ spirits could rise and the crucial bloc of independent voters may decide to keep on course with those in power.

“If people go back to work, it will be a plus for Democrats and a minus for Republicans,” said state Sen. Brian Hatfield, D-Raymond, a founder of the moderate Roadkill Caucus in the Legislature.

It won’t prevent losing seats, Dotzauer said.

“(An economic turnaround) is going to have to happen for them to reduce their losses not eliminate their losses,” he said. “If I’m a Democrat, there is only one message I’m talking about and that’s the economy and jobs. They’ve got to pound, pound, pound on that message.”

Another reason Democrats don’t foresee total disaster is they know voters are in a sour mood and are already preparing their response for the campaign trail. In 1994, they didn’t see the uprising of voters coming until it rolled over them.

“We see that possibility, we’re covering for it, shoring up the districts that might be vulnerable, and we’re making sure all of our people know this is going to be an important cycle and we cannot let down our guard,” Phillips said.

Democratic candidates and party committees in the state and nation are raising plenty of money to organize core supporters and to spread their political message.

The new national health care bill could prove a benefit this fall when elements expanding coverage for children take effect. Democratic candidates will certainly try to capitalize on this to show the value of the reform, Phillips said.

“Democrats are fired up. This is the biggest piece of progressive legislation in 45 years,” he said.

State lawmakers do have a record of investing in education, health care, public safety and the environment they can defend and, at the same time, they can talk of the Republican Party’s opposition to many of the investments, Hatfield said.

As for the higher taxes, that’s a challenge but it can be done by explaining who is paying and where those new tax dollars are getting spent, Democrats said.

“In the end, as Tip O’Neill said, all politics are local,” Phillips said. “It will come down to how voters feel about the representation they’ve gotten in Olympia and in Washington, D.C.”

Republicans think they’ll feel lousy enough to toss out the incumbents.

Elvig, a former Snohomish County Republican Party leader, cautioned against exceedingly high expectations in April.

“I think it’s really too early to read tea leaves,” he said. “This election won’t start to be over until mid-October.”

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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