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Originally published January 26, 2011 at 4:27 PM | Page modified January 27, 2011 at 10:31 AM

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Corrected version

Joni Balter / Seattle Times editorial columnist

New state GOP chairman Kirby Wilbur a conundrum for AG McKenna

The Washington State Republican Party selects former KVI talk-show host Kirby Wilbur as its new state party chairman, a dicey call for a couple of reasons. The GOP front-runner for governor in 2012, State Attorney General Rob McKenna, wanted the current chairman, Luke Esser.

Seattle Times editorial columnist

Democrats are bungee jumping with joy after learning that the Washington State Republican Party selected, as one Democrat put it, "The Rush Limbaugh of Washington" as its new party chairman.

Most Washingtonians, mind you, could not name the chairman of either party and wouldn't cast a vote in the 2012 governor's race based on such a thing. The selection of former KVI radio host Kirby Wilbur is very insider-ish, but has ramifications for state Attorney General Rob McKenna, widely considered the Republican front-runner for governor in 2012, and a very promising one.

State GOP committee members turned down McKenna's plea to select his longtime aide and pal, Luke Esser, the current chairman, for another two years. Esser and McKenna are more mainstream, while Wilbur is very conservative.

Wilbur is best known as a hot-talk radio host. Flammable and hard right, just how the base likes it. But that is the wrong image for McKenna, who needs his politics to be much like Northwest climate, temperate, if he is to crack the Democratic hold on the governor's office.

Democrats also feel a bit of schadenfreude because McKenna could not control his own party. But committee members, like Republicans nationally, have minds of their own.

So who is Wilbur? He crusaded on his show years ago to undo a gas tax for roads and bridges, because a tax, even for badly needed infrastructure, was a dirty word. Context: In 2005, when Wilbur touted the initiative, only very conservative Republicans — in direct conflict with the business community — opposed the tax. The Wilbur-backed measure was beaten statewide.

McKenna, by contrast, usually supports infrastructure endeavors, though as attorney general he could not offer a position on the measure.

The big question is which Kirby Wilbur will show up at party headquarters: the bloviating one or one who understands the state well?

Wilbur could be a low-key manager and knockout fundraiser, or he could, as some radio types like to do, go out and fashion a message. And that would be problematic.

Wilbur told me he has been involved in Republican politics for eons and knows the correct tone and tenor to strike.

McKenna's conundrum with any party leader, especially Wilbur, is he must appeal to the far right that controls the party during the primary, but cannot win without appealing to independents and, dare I say, a few Democrats.

Forgive me for stating the obvious: It is not easy for any Republican to become governor of this bluish state. The last Republican to win was 30 years ago, John Spellman, a moderate King County executive.

Recycling bins are littered with Republicans either too conservative or unlikable to become governor — Ken Eikenberry, who served three terms as attorney general, John Carlson and ultra right Ellen Craswell, who won the primary in 1996 and flamed out in the general.

McKenna is the best GOP candidate in years, but 2012 could bring another Democratic tide of young voters supporting the president. McKenna needs Wilbur to raise money like, well, a newly adjusted Seattle parking meter. If independents and Democrats are to vote for McKenna, it will be because of his moderate demeanor and nuanced stance on issues.

McKenna, for example, describes himself as personally opposed to abortion but does not believe government should restrict a woman's basic right to choose. I know, I know. Abortion is not a top priority in a state that voted numerous times for choice, or in an economic downturn when hideous budget woes loom. But a candidate's position on this becomes code for, "Oh, one of those Republicans." The rest of the sentence is, "who cannot win Washington state."

Wilbur is a dicey choice also because he led the state chapter of Americans for Prosperity, a conservative organization that spent money attacking Democrats in 2010 legislative contests. Democrats say the group failed to file proper paperwork describing its activities. What if McKenna has to sue Wilbur? Awkward.

The bottom line is McKenna would benefit from an easy glide to the primary nomination. The unknown is whether Wilbur is more or less likely to make that happen. Then we will see how mild his politics really are.

Joni Balter's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. E-mail jbalter@seattletimes.com

This column originally said Ken Eikenberry served two terms.

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