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Originally published March 31, 2010 at 10:01 PM | Page modified April 1, 2010 at 11:52 AM

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Health-care lawsuit throws spotlight on McKenna's politics

Washington state Attorney General Rob McKenna says politics didn't influence his decision to join a multistate lawsuit challenging the new federal health-care law. But there are clear political consequences for a man widely expected to be the Republican nominee for governor in 2012.

Seattle Times Olympia bureau

OLYMPIA — State Attorney General Rob McKenna attended a rally at the state Capitol last weekend for reasons that supposedly had nothing to do with his political future.

It was billed as a pep rally of sorts, supporting his decision to join a multistate legal effort to challenge the new federal health-care overhaul, passed by Congress without a single Republican vote.

McKenna showed up with his wife and attacked the law in front of a boisterous tea-party throng, calling the legislation "the largest wealth transfer in our lifetimes." The crowd waved "Fire Gregoire" and "Stop Obama" signs and chanted, "Thank you Rob, thank you Rob."

McKenna, who has built a reputation as a moderate Republican, says his decision to join the lawsuit was not influenced by politics and is purely about protecting the Constitution. But there are clear political consequences for a man widely expected to be the GOP nominee for governor in 2012.

Democrats argue that the move shows McKenna's true nature as a far-right Republican out of step with most Washington voters. But the legal challenge appeals to core Republicans, including those at the rally, who could prove important for any gubernatorial bid.

Alex Hays, executive director of the Mainstream Republicans of Washington, said that while he doesn't think McKenna needs to court the right, many do.

"There were a variety of right-wing people grumbling that McKenna wasn't right-wing enough. McKenna is pro-choice," Hays said. "He has a good environmental record. His agenda has been very centrist throughout his political career."

It's those voters who might be wooed by someone challenging President Obama's biggest policy victory, said Chris Vance, former chairman of the state Republican Party.

Vance said he thinks McKenna joined the suit because he believes in its merits, but he added, "Rob has dramatically improved his standing with the Republican base and it's likely the only people he's made mad are the people who would never vote for him for governor anyway."

2012 governor's race

The suit, filed March 23 in a Florida federal court by attorneys general from 13 states, argues the health-care law's requirement that everyone purchase health insurance is an unconstitutional expansion of federal authority.

Although McKenna says politics did not influence his decision to join the effort, he acknowledged "it crosses my mind what the political ramifications are."

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McKenna, who is 48, said he'll decide next year whether he'll run for governor in 2012, which is more than he's been willing to say in the past.

He's been talked about as a potential gubernatorial candidate for years, even before he first ran for attorney general in 2004. He was re-elected in 2008 with 59 percent of the vote.

An Eagle Scout, McKenna graduated from Sammamish High School in Bellevue and went to the University of Washington, where he was student-body president and graduated Phi Beta Kappa.

He got his law degree at the University of Chicago and practiced business and regulatory law at Perkins Coie from 1988 through 1995, when he left to run for the Metropolitan King County Council. He made a name for himself on the council as an outspoken critic of Sound Transit's early financial plans, which were later revised.

The job of attorney general can be an ideal platform to run for higher office: It provides politicians high visibility, without having to take tough votes that can haunt them later.

Over the years, McKenna has at times taken positions at odds with more conservative members of his party.

He joined with several other states in 2008 to pressure the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to regulate greenhouse-gas emissions.

In a 2008 Seattle Times interview that touched on abortion, McKenna said, "I am pro-choice, and I'm on the record as being pro-choice."

He argued and won a case before the U.S. Supreme Court to reinstate the type of primary election that lets the top two vote-getters advance to the November election — even if they're from the same party. The primary, popular with voters, is disliked by both the Republican and Democratic parties.

McKenna also has tussled with the powerful Building Industry Association of Washington, filing a lawsuit in 2008 alleging the group had broken state campaign-finance laws.

The group, a major backer of GOP candidates, has been on the attack since, referring to him as "more liberal than a liberal" and a "RINO" — Republican in name only.

Political tea leaves

The health-care lawsuit brought a swift response from Democrats. An infuriated Gov. Chris Gregoire said she'll file a legal brief to make it clear McKenna doesn't speak for the whole state, and key legislators said they may try to block him from spending state money on the case.

Dwight Pelz, chairman of the state Democratic Party, predicts the lawsuit will come back to bite McKenna, should he run for higher office.

"McKenna has been working very hard for six years as attorney general to present himself as a political moderate to the people of Washington state. In one moment he wiped away six years of work and revealed himself to be a classic right-wing Republican," Pelz said.

"It is not about the law or the Constitution," he said. "It is politically motivated, and he just lost his moderate base."

Others aren't so sure.

Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, doesn't see much risk for McKenna, largely because he thinks the lawsuit won't succeed.

"You please your base by going after it, but you really have no consequences for doing it because it will fail," he said.

Former Gov. Dan Evans, a moderate Republican, also doubts McKenna would pay a political price if he runs for governor.

"Two years from now we'll have other things that are a hell of a lot more important than that we'll have to be dealing with," he said.

For his part, McKenna shows no regret for his decision. But he downplayed his role in a recent interview, noting that Florida's attorney general will take the lead in the case.

McKenna plans to participate in conference calls and review briefs. He does not expect to hire outside experts, have any of his staff spending much time on the case, or even file a brief.

So why bother getting involved?

"If we're participating, the case is more likely to be successful," he said. "I'm a very good lawyer, and I will add value."

As for the future, he'll sort that out later.

"It's a big mistake for anyone to be looking too far down the road instead of what the task at hand is," he said.

Andrew Garber: 360-236-8268 or agarber@seattletimes.com

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