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Originally published Monday, August 12, 2013 at 9:07 PM

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Philosophical split in contest to lead state GOP

Some of the contenders to become the next chair of the state Republican Party argue the GOP’s top candidates have flopped in Washington because they weren’t conservative enough.

Seattle Times political reporter

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Some of the contenders to become the next chair of the state Republican Party argue the GOP’s top candidates have flopped in Washington because they weren’t conservative enough.

At least five people have announced they are seeking the post vacated when Kirby Wilbur took a job with a conservative Washington, D.C., foundation last month.

The contenders include Susan Hutchison, the former KIRO-TV anchor who ran for King County executive in 2009; Luanne Van Werven, the party’s interim chair; Jim Walsh, a Grays Harbor County GOP state committeeman; Christian Berrigan, operations director of the Clark County Republicans; and Lloyd Becker, a Benton County precinct-committee officer.

While much of their campaigning is centered on which candidate is best qualified to raise money and organize grass-roots volunteers, there is also talk about the philosophical direction of the party. Some suggested the GOP message has grown muddled by a desire to appeal to the political center.

“We have gone the moderate Republican route, and I would just like to say, how has that worked out for us? Not very well,” Van Werven told attendees at a Republican gathering in Ellensburg over the weekend.

The GOP would fare better with candidates like Dino Rossi, “who was conservative yet still had appeal across party lines,” she said. “Rob McKenna? Great guy, but I’m sorry, over here on the east side he just couldn’t pull in the votes like he should.”

Van Werven’s conservative bona fides go way back. The former Whatcom County GOP chair got her start in politics working with the state chapter of the Eagle Forum, the organization founded by conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly.

In an interview, Van Werven said the key to growing the Republican Party “is reaching out to voters all over the state, convincing them that we have the right ideas and that the Republican Party principles really are the Northwest’s homegrown values.”

Despite her own beliefs, Van Werven said there would be “no litmus test” for GOP candidates if she became party leader.

Hutchison, the best known of the contenders, is touting her fundraising ability and experience facing the “dishonest tactics” of “the Democratic machine” during her unsuccessful campaign for King County executive four years ago.

Hutchison said Republicans can’t afford to be ideologically picky when it comes to recruiting candidates.

“The Republicans have so far to go in building a farm team ... it’s hardly like we have a bunch of people standing in the wings who would be excellent governors,” she said in an interview.

Walsh said the GOP message has not been clear enough, but he didn’t blame McKenna for losing to Democrat Jay Inslee. “I’m running because it’s the WSRP’s fault — our fault — that Jay Inslee is governor. ... Rob McKenna was a solid candidate. And we failed him,” he wrote in an email to Republican activists.

In an interview, Walsh said, “It’s not the voters’ fault. We’ve been sloppy in drawing a frame for what we stand for.”

Voters have backed initiatives limiting taxes, he noted, while continuing to elect Democrats to statewide office.

Walsh is a member of the Republican Liberty Caucus, a group dominated by former backers of presidential candidate Ron Paul. Paul’s supporters clashed at times with state GOP leaders, but Walsh said there is no reason the groups can’t work together.

“I don’t think there is a great deal of philosophical difference between many of the establishment Republicans and liberty-minded Republicans,” he said.

Berrigan, the Clark County GOP activist, agreed with Van Werven that Republican efforts to appeal to moderates have backfired.

“I believe that this idea of trying to blend into the middle to try to attract a small fraction of the vote has been proven to be a losing strategy,” he said.

Berrigan said that, in particular, the Republican Party’s leaders need to avoid picking favorites in contested primaries. Otherwise the losing side feels like the game was rigged and “they get deflated and discouraged,” he said.

Becker, the Benton County candidate, could not be reached for comment.

The 117 members of the Republican Party’s state committee — three from each of the state’s 39 counties — will elect the new party chair at a meeting Aug. 24 in Spokane.

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

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