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Originally published Monday, February 18, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnist

Missteps of Washington's GOP

In 1994, the GOP simply stormed through Washington state, capturing seats almost at will. Given the party's collapse 10 years later, it...

Special to The Times

In 1994, the GOP simply stormed through Washington state, capturing seats almost at will. Given the party's collapse 10 years later, it is hard to believe that in 1996, Republicans controlled the Metropolitan King County Council, the state Senate, the state House, the congressional delegation, a U.S. Senate seat, the Secretary of State's Office, and heaven knows how many local councils.

Today, with the exception of a few statewide offices, the Republican Party has been horsewhipped and humiliated, driven almost completely from the field.

If it is ever going to win again, the GOP must change. Consequently, party leaders need to answer a very simple question, namely: "Just what the hell happened here?"

The answer is this: The GOP in Washington state is now reaping the bitter fruits of decisions it sowed in the early 1990s.

During the early '90s, the GOP decided that candidates could be marketed and sold like a box of soap. To that end, the party chose to be nothing more than a cash cow, one staffed by professionals, managed by consultants and fueled by a handful of wealthy, well-connected insiders.

What the party chose not to be was a grass-roots organization, one teeming with energy, activists and ideas. Who needs volunteers when you have direct mail? Who needs ideas when you can have marketing campaigns? And, who needs activists when you have consultants?

A simple historical fact makes the point: In 1992, staffers at Washington state GOP headquarters helped draft Initiative 134, which effectively allowed the state party to raise twice as much money as county or local parties, immediately making grass-roots activists second-class citizens. Now that the party was going to rely on political consultants, amateurs and volunteers had become dispensable and huge sums of money were now necessary to run and win elections.

And so the die was cast. Because the state party had chosen to become nothing more than a conduit for cash, it became, like all businesses and corporations, a top-down organization run by professionals, not a bottom-up organization run by activists and, well, real people.

Allowing the party to be captured by professionals and a handful of insiders has had several dire, long-term consequences for the Washington state GOP.

First, the party must now attach itself almost exclusively to the candidate(s) at the top of the ticket because those candidates bring in the most cash. That means, of course, that the party is utterly disinterested in anyone running for lower office. It is no wonder, then, that some Republican legislators are privately complaining that they are having a difficult time finding candidates to run for state legislative seats.

Second, the GOP's top-down leadership style allows party leaders to run off those candidates and activists who hail from wings of the party not currently in favor with leadership.

Chris Vance, a former state GOP chairman, recently declared that he has never seen the party as united as it is today. Well, that's because there's hardly anyone left: The party has run out libertarians, Ellen Craswell's Christian conservatives, Pat Buchanan's social conservatives and, in 2000, even presidential candidate John McCain's "mainstream" conservatives!

Third, because its top-down leadership style has effectively cut party leadership off from the base, the GOP is now bereft of principles and ideas. Before current party leaders shrug this one off, they should look up the words "pork," "earmarks," and "out-of-control spending." They'll probably find cross-listed references to the GOP and "squandered opportunities."

Change — real change — comes only from the ground up. We've seen what professionals and insiders can do; it's high time for the GOP to get back to its roots.

Reed Davis is a former chairman of the King County Republican Party. He is professor of political science at Seattle Pacific University, and ran for the GOP nomination to the U.S. Senate in 2004.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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