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Originally published Saturday, November 17, 2012 at 4:03 PM

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State Republicans ponder long-term prospects on blue West Coast

Washington's new secretary of state, Kim Wyman, is the only Republican candidate elected statewide in Washington this year — and the only Republican statewide-elected official on the West Coast. Republicans nationwide and in our state are trying to figure out happens next, how to bolster their party after an election thumping.

Seattle Times political reporter

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When Kim Wyman is sworn in as secretary of state in January, she'll stand as a lonely figure: the sole Republican statewide-elected official in Washington — and the entire West Coast.

"It's a little odd. When your whole team is behind, it's a little hard to celebrate," said Wyman, the Thurston County auditor preparing for a transition to her new job.

While Washington Republicans weren't exactly popping open the Champagne, Wyman's victory gave them a small measure of consolation in an election packed with disappointment.

Republicans lost eight other state executive races, plus all three open U.S. House seats, and barely mounted a challenge to U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell.

Just as the national GOP enters a soul-searching phase, local Republicans, too, wonder whether they'll be able to recapture any of the state's top political offices, or whether Washington will stick with Oregon and California to form a solid Democratic West Coast bloc.

In interviews, local GOP leaders mostly pointed the blame outward. Until the GOP finds a presidential candidate who can appeal more to King County voters, they argued, the party will struggle all down the ticket.

"The candidates here are not the candidates people are reading about in Missouri and Georgia. But in a year when you are running with the president, it's hard to break out of that and explain it to people," said Bill Finkbeiner, a self-described progressive Republican who favored abortion rights and gay marriage, yet was soundly defeated in the race for lieutenant governor.

Former U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton said Republicans for the most part fielded the right candidates in Washington this year, but couldn't overcome "the deep pit of the city of Seattle and the close-in suburbs," which reflexively vote Democratic.

"Seattle is an extremely liberal city with extremely liberal political attitudes. It's hard to imagine a Republican Party that is going to appeal to that," said Gorton, a Republican. "It will take something big to change that — a really bad economy that gets blamed on the president or governor, or some other major issue that we don't know about now."

The party hasn't won a U.S. Senate race here since 1994, when Gorton was last elected, and it's been eight years since Republicans had a majority in either chamber of the state Legislature.

Gorton and others were particularly mourning the gubernatorial race. Two-term Attorney General Rob McKenna had cultivated a moderate reputation and was considered the GOP's best shot at interrupting nearly three decades of Democratic control over the governor's office.

"If we can't elect Rob McKenna, maybe it is time to move to Texas," state Republican Party Chairman Kirby Wilbur fumed during the GOP's downbeat election-night party in Bellevue.

For Republicans, the gubernatorial result was the same old story. McKenna looked like he had a shot and led in much of the state, but was defeated by Gov.-elect Jay Inslee on the strength of the Democrat's 219,000-vote advantage in King County.

As of Friday, McKenna trailed Inslee by nearly 76,000 votes, with most of the vote counting wrapping up in the all-mail election. McKenna outperformed Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, scoring nearly 49 percent of the statewide vote compared with 42 percent for Romney.

The situation for Republicans in Washington isn't as dire as in California, where Democrats, in addition to controlling all statewide offices, also scored supermajorities in the Legislature.

By contrast, Republicans in the closely divided Washington state Senate have paired with conservative Democrats to wield de facto control over budget talks.

Randy Pepple, McKenna's campaign manager, said there is no need for the state GOP to panic, saying the media and political insiders overdramatize the long-term implications of presidential elections.

"I don't buy into the whole argument that wholesale changes are in order," Pepple said. "We're not talking about a 60-40 blowout — we're talking about a few percentage points."

But long-term prospects for Republicans on the West Coast will remain bleak unless they adapt to the changing electorate, say some political experts.

"I think the demographic challenges that the national Republican Party is just beginning to confront have been in evidence on the West Coast for several years," said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California.

"The electorate is going to continue to become less white and less old and less married and less religious and less straight. Add up each of those factors and it works in the favor of today's Democratic Party and against the prospect of today's Republican Party," he said.

Matt Barreto, a political-science professor at the University of Washington, agreed that Republicans need a message that better aligns with the changing demographics of America.

"The GOP can still maintain a conservative fiscal position, but their conservative stances on immigration, contraception and marriage are outdated and will only cost them votes in every future election," he said.

The latest round of GOP losses has led to some criticism over the national Republican Party's decision to virtually write off the state in the presidential and other federal contests.

Pepple said the McKenna campaign was hurt both by the unpopularity here of Romney and by the lack of any national GOP organization and spending in the presidential and congressional races in Washington.

"When they don't have a presence here, our candidates are left to fend for themselves," said Lori Sotelo, chair of the King County Republican Party. Democrats had the advantage of 25 field offices across the state that boosted President Obama's get-out-the-vote campaign, benefiting Democratic candidates down the ballot.

The Republican losses have led to a full-blown finger-pointing feud in one case — John Koster's loss in the 1st Congressional District to Democrat Suzan DelBene.

Koster and his campaign manager, Larry Stickney, lashed out at the GOP for failing to support his campaign with money for television ads.

"They poisoned the well for us," Stickney said, accusing Wilbur, the state party chairman, and the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) of abandoning the campaign, because they believed Koster was too conservative for the swing district.

Wilbur and others disputed that account, saying Koster fielded a poor campaign that resisted advice and failed to raise enough money to earn the national help.

"I really wish that we had been able to work better together to help them win," said Mike Shields, political director for the NRCC.

But, he said, when the NRCC had to make difficult, data-driven choices about where to spend its money, the Koster campaign simply didn't make the cut.

Gorton, who helped draw the boundaries of the new 1st Congressional District during redistricting last year, called the 1st District race "a failure of candidate recruitment" for Republicans, noting he'd personally tried to persuade three other more moderate candidates to run. As the last Republican statewide official left standing on the West Coast, Wyman said she hopes the GOP can turn its focus away from hot-button issues like abortion.

"If the party is to move forward and have success, we've really got to find the 80 percent we agree on that defines us and get back to it," Wyman said.

Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or jbrunner@seattletimes.com.

On Twitter @Jim_Brunner.

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