Can state GOP find a way to come back?
House Republican Leader Richard DeBolt has an unusual way of looking at the string of bad news that hit his caucus this year — ethics...
Seattle Times Olympia bureau
OLYMPIA — House Republican Leader Richard DeBolt has an unusual way of looking at the string of bad news that hit his caucus this year — ethics complaints, a sex scandal, a member defecting to the Democratic Party and several GOP lawmakers who have either left or plan to leave.
"The symbol for opportunity and crisis are the same in Chinese," said DeBolt, R-Chehalis. "We've been blessed with a lot of new opportunities this year."
Yet Democrats also see opportunity amid DeBolt's problems. They hope to go after newly vulnerable seats in 2008 to increase their already overwhelming 63-to-35-seat majority. Democrats also control the Senate and the governor's office.
Any time there's an open seat or controversy surrounding a legislator, it makes it easier for the opposition to move in. Democrats say there are at least four GOP seats they have a chance of picking up next year.
It's not an idle threat. "Politically, it's a rout right now," said Chris Vance, a GOP consultant and former chairman of the state Republican Party.
House Democrats, he said, are highly organized, they're raising more money and have a history of recruiting better candidates. "The Democrats have proven they can win anywhere," he said.
A recent poll by Stuart Elway also indicates Republicans may have trouble next year. It found that independent voters in Washington are "tilting quite heavily to the Democratic side of the ledger," he said. "The Republicans are going to be swimming against that tide."
His poll indicated that one-third of independent voters said it was "important that a Democrat win the presidency" or it "would be better" if a Democrat won. That was twice the number of independents who said the same for a Republican president.
The House GOP turnover and embarrassments can't help:
• Rep. Richard Curtis, R-La Center, Clark County, resigned in November amid allegations that while at a Republican legislative conference in Spokane, he had sex with a man who later tried to blackmail him.
• Rep. Jim Dunn, R-Vancouver, was reprimanded and kicked off his committees last month after making an inappropriate sexual remark to a female staffer.
• Rep. Shirley Hankins, R-Richland, earlier this month agreed to pay a record settlement to the state for violations related to promoting her daughter's business.
• Rep. Fred Jarrett, of Mercer Island, recently defected to the Democrats, saying Republicans were no longer a good fit. He plans to run for the state Senate.
Also, over the past several months, three other GOP members have either resigned or said they plan to run for another office in 2008.
Rep. David Buri, R-Colfax, Whitman County, resigned in November to work for Eastern Washington University. Rep. Chris Strow, R-Freeland, Island County, left the Legislature earlier this month to work for the Puget Sound Regional Council. And Rep. Joyce McDonald, R-Puyallup, has announced plans to run for the Pierce County Council in 2008.
Tony Yuchasz, director of the House Democratic Campaign Committee, contends the Democrats have a good shot at taking the seats held by Strow, MacDonald, Jarrett and Dunn. Curtis' old seat is in a tougher district for Democrats, but they haven't ruled that out either, he said.
DeBolt said his caucus is dealing with the Dunn and Hankins situations, Jarrett left because he wanted to be a Democrat, and the rest left for normal reasons — except Curtis. "The Richard Curtis thing wasn't normal," he said.
The turnover and other problems do put his caucus on the defensive next year, DeBolt said. "We have to protect the seats that we have, and we have to protect our new members, which we now have a lot of," he said.
He predicted House Democrats will outspend Republicans by "three to one" in the 2008 election.
Yet DeBolt was optimistic about his party's chances of retaining the seats his party now holds, as well as taking back Jarrett's House seat.
The anti-war mood and anger against President Bush cost Republicans seats in 2006, DeBolt contends.
"We looked at the districts we lost. A lot of those people voted ... about the war," he said. "They couldn't take their anger out on Bush. They took it out on the nearest thing they could, and that was the Legislature. That's what cost us seats there."
But Bush won't be on the ballot in 2008.
"I think that will help. It can't hurt," DeBolt said.
Plus Republican Dino Rossi, who narrowly lost to Democratic Gov. Christine Gregoire in 2004, is running again next year. DeBolt also said strong candidates are stepping forward to fill vacant seats and to take on Democrats.
Republican leaders always said they had strong candidates in the past, yet they still lost seats to Democrats. Back then, House Speaker Frank Chopp "had better ones," DeBolt said.
"We've learned from Speaker Chopp," he said. "He's done a great job of recruiting. And so we spent most of our focus on recruiting, and we have some very good people."
In the legislative session that starts in January, DeBolt said Republicans will focus on coming up with better solutions to the state's problems than the ones Democrats deliver.
"I think you're going to find we will have the plan on health care. We will have the plan on funding education first. We'll have the right solutions on transportation that aren't wasting money on ferries and the [Alaskan Way] viaduct," he said. "You're going to see on-the-ground solutions."
But DeBolt acknowledges his party has little clout nowadays.
"The best we can hope for is that we put our solutions out. They steal the ideas and run them as Democratic ones, and we should all be happy," he said.
Andrew Garber: 360-943-9882 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company
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