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Originally published Saturday, August 24, 2013 at 7:19 PM

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Hutchison elected to lead ‘ragtag army’ of state GOP

Former KIRO-TV news anchor Susan Hutchison was elected Saturday to chair the state GOP, with a pledge to turn around years of Republican decline.

Seattle Times political reporter

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SPOKANE — Vowing to turn around years of Republican decline in Washington, former KIRO-TV anchor Susan Hutchison was elected Saturday to chair the state GOP.

During a meeting of the GOP’s state committee at the Spokane Red Lion, Hutchison defeated the interim GOP chair, Luanne Van Werven, in a runoff vote after two other contenders were eliminated.

Hutchison unsuccessfully ran for King County executive in 2009 by downplaying her Republican ties and claiming to be nonpartisan. But she was in full partisan fervor Saturday, calling Democrats beholden to “union fat cats” and “masters of election fraud as proven in 2004 when they stole the election of Dino Rossi.”

That’s an often-repeated accusation by Republicans about the 2004 gubernatorial election, although the GOP was unable to prove any fraud in a lawsuit following Democrat Chris Gregoire’s victory.

While Van Werven ran as a grass-roots conservative who’d worked in the party trenches for decades, Hutchison pitched her fundraising prowess, celebrity and media savvy.

In an impassioned speech to the GOP activists, Hutchison painted a dire picture of the Republican Party’s condition in Washington state. She likened party loyalists to George Washington’s “ragtag army” at Valley Forge and said the GOP right now has “no leading indicators with the arrow going up.”

Hutchison said the state party is “nearly broke,” has a “useless” website and a get-out-the-vote operation that is “spotty in most counties and ineffective in our most populous counties.”

“Can it get worse? Of course it can. The Democrats are not playing dead,” said Hutchison. She described the Democratic Party as “swelling in our urban centers” and threatening to render Republicans irrelevant.

In 2012, Republicans lost every statewide race, with the exception of electing Secretary of State Kim Wyman, who is now the only Republican official elected statewide on the West Coast. Republicans also lost three races for open congressional seats.

But, Hutchison argued, the GOP can turn its fortunes around. “The reason why is, we are right and they are wrong,” she said.

Van Werven had campaigned on her grass-roots chops as a longtime party activist in Whatcom County. She said the GOP needs to improve its data and get-out-the-vote efforts.

“The simple truth is Obama’s machine hammered us on the tech front in 2012,” she said, noting the Republican National Committee has a plan to do better in the next election.

Van Werven sparked an internal party controversy when she seemed to criticize the GOP’s 2012 gubernatorial nominee, Rob McKenna, during a speech to a Republican group in Ellensburg.

At that event, Van Werven said the GOP had “gone the moderate Republican route” and it didn’t work out. She said McKenna “just couldn’t pull in the votes like he should” among conservative Eastern Washington residents.

Alex Hays, executive director of the Mainstream Republicans of Washington, said the notion Republicans would do better with more-conservative candidates is folly.

“The Republican Party needs to attract more people living in the middle of the spectrum,” Hays said.

Hutchison on Saturday seemed to criticize Van Werven’s statement, saying the question for Republicans should not be how McKenna worked out, but how Democrats such as Gov. Jay Inslee and U.S. Sen. Patty Murray have worked out for the state.

Van Werven said she called McKenna to explain her comments and emphasized she would not, as party head, stand in the way of moderates.

In her speech Saturday, Van Werven made no similar comments but said the GOP needs “to find candidates who are proud of our platform and who will promote our brand with sincerity and eagerness.”

Two other nominees for GOP chairman, Jim Walsh and Christian Berrigan, both aligned with a libertarian wing of the party, were eliminated on the first ballot Saturday. Most of their supporters swung to Hutchison’s camp on the second ballot.

The final vote on the GOP state committee was Hutchison, 59, Van Werven, 46.

Since her years at KIRO, Hutchison has served as a board member for the Discovery Institute, a Seattle think tank, and more recently as executive director of the Charles and Lisa Simonyi Fund for Arts and Sciences, a philanthropic foundation in Seattle.

The GOP’s leadership post was vacated when Kirby Wilbur abruptly resigned last month to take a job in Washington, D.C. Wilbur had been elected to a second term in January. Hutchison will serve out the remainder of the two-year term.

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

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