The outcome of federal races in Washington state, like those in a handful of other key battlegrounds, may determine the winner of the presidential election and who controls the Senate. [IMGCAP(1)]
But they also may affect the political future of Washington state Republican Party Chairman Chris Vance.
Vance staked his chairmanship on a four-year plan to rebuild the state party from the ground up and win more state and federal seats for the GOP.
After making progress on the state but not the federal level in 2002, Vance needs some big wins this year to prove his strategy has worked.
Late last year, things didn’t look so good. The GOP was scrambling for top-tier candidates in the Senate and gubernatorial races, and found itself defending two potentially competitive open House seats.
But things may be looking up — Rep. George Nethercutt (R) could give Sen. Patty Murray (D) a tough challenge. And the GOP’s prospects in a number of other races appear to be improving.
Republican success could make Vance a viable candidate for federal office down the road.
Vance, a former state legislator and King County councilman who ran unsuccessfully for the House in 2000, makes no secret of his desire to return to elected office.
“I think the ultimate job is U.S. Senator and there’s an election in 2006,” Vance said, quickly adding that he is not committed to challenging Sen. Maria Cantwell (D) then. “I have to have the opportunity to run for Senate, but you never know what the future holds.”
When he took over the party in January 2001, he left his position on the King County Council to reassemble a state GOP apparatus hobbled by scandal and internal bickering.
The previous chairman, Don Benton, refused to resign after news broke that he intended to move the state party headquarters from the Seattle area to Olympia and that he had already purchased a building without proper approval.
Vance defeated Benton and three others in what he called “the most public fight for chairman” in the state’s history.
His first task was to put together a staff — Benton had cleaned house when he became chairman a mere eight months
before and most of his hires followed him out the door.
“I had to rebuild the organization and restore the credibility of the party,” Vance recalled.
Vance reached out to national party leaders to help find an executive director and they recommended the young Peter Abbarno, who remains today.
“I wanted an outside executive director who was used to winning and not part of any [state party] faction,” Vance said.
Then Vance had to tap donors who had abandoned the party and give the organization new direction.
“The funding base was in tatters,” he said. “We had run afoul of the business community.”
He generally wins high marks from the party faithful for his work during this period.
“I think he has done a good job,” said Betty Hanes, a delegate to the recent GOP convention in New York. “When he was first elected, the party wasn’t in the best shape … for a while, some of the big [donors] weren’t contributing. He had to bring those people back.”
Vance has also worked to sell his party on the “crescent” strategy — the plan to win over suburban voters around Seattle focusing on independents and moderates residing in the 1st, 8th and 9th Congressional districts.
“I am not moving the party to the center despite [such] claims from critics,” he said. “But we do have to appeal to them — talk about their issues such as transportation, education, health care and the environment. We have to work on tone and demeanor.”
In 2002, Republicans won a majority of county-level offices and took control of the state Senate. However, they lost seats in the state House, where they were already in the minority, and made no Congressional gains.
At the time Vance blamed the outcome on a dearth of statewide races — there were none — and a lack of national Republican help.
“Considering where we stand, he’s doing a fabulous job,” David Carson, a convention delegate and district chairman, said. “It’s a difficult state; we haven’t had a Republican governor in over 20 years.”
That is something Vance hopes to change this year.
Vance did everything he could to clear the field for one Republican candidate in each of the state’s two marquee races this year.
“I only wanted one candidate for governor and one for Senator and I wanted to get behind them early,” Vance said, acknowledging that this tactic “rankled” some rank-and-file Republicans. “Our candidates were emerging from primaries broke and bruised.”
To that end, he managed to dissuade everyone but former state Sen. Dino Rossi from running for governor, but his desire to winnow the field well before the Sept. 14 primary almost backfired.
He had two top recruits considering the race and he thought one would emerge by July 2003, but then both candidates dragged their heels and Rossi did not actually declare his candidacy until November.
That was a “painful” process, Vance said, admitting he does not know what he would have done had Rossi not decided to go for the open governor’s seat.
“We don’t have a very deep bench,” he acknowledged.
The drive to help Nethercutt unseat Murray created some bad blood among the party faithful as well.
All top-flight candidates deferred to Nethercutt, but former King County GOP Chairman Reed Davis, who had run against Vance for state party chairman in 2001, threw his hat into the ring anyway.
Controversy stirred when Davis was denied the right to speak at the state party convention held in Bellevue in May because he refused to obey Ronald Reagan’s so-called 11th commandment, to not speak ill of another Republican.
“A lot of us wanted Reed to speak but he kind of dug his own hole” by refusing to sign the unity pledge, said Jamie Walker, an alternate to the national convention and a Nethercutt campaign staffer.
“It was just the rules; Reed knew the rules,” Hanes added.
Nonetheless, the uproar earned Vance some bad press.
Looking at the entire slate, Vance is clearly staking the party’s credibility on being able to deliver Washington for President Bush, installing Rossi into the governor’s mansion, unseating Murray and holding onto the two open House seats where Republicans are retiring — a tall order.
“I’d be disappointed if we don’t win it all,” Vance said. Then he hedged his bets and added: “I will be judged by if we win, but as long as I advance the party, at some point, that is a minimum satisfaction.”
There is no certainty that Vance can accomplish even one of those goals. The presidential race is tight and Sen. John Kerry (D) holds a slight lead over Bush in the Evergreen State; the governor’s race is expected to be very close; Nethercutt trails Murray in the polls; and the open 8th district is a true swing seat.
Furthermore, Vance was hampered in his efforts to give the state’s six Democratic House Members tough challengers.
A surprise retirement by Rep. Jennifer Dunn (R) left the GOP vulnerable in the 8th and forced Vance to shift focus there. Then in the 1st district, his top House recruit, King County Councilwoman Jane Hague (R), abandoned her bid to unseat Rep. Jay Inslee (D) for family reasons.
Republicans also chose a former jailbird as their candidate for state auditor after no one filed to run, leaving it up to the state party to fill the void.
“It’s somewhat embarrassing,” Vance admitted to The Seattle Times last month. “We should have been more thorough in checking him out.”
Ultimately, the only test that matters is November. If Vance can deliver Washington for Bush or even hold onto the 8th, it will prove that his strategy of at least sounding a more moderate tone and reaching out to suburban voters can work.
It will also put him in excellent position to present himself as a statewide candidate, something that would not surprise his underlings.
“He has made certain statements that make people think he will not put himself up again for chairman” in 2005, Carson said, adding that if Bush wins a second term, perhaps there would be a job in the administration for Vance.
Hanes concedes that the 42-year-old Vance probably has bigger ambitions.
“A young man who is as astute a politician as he is probably should have” hopes of higher office, Hanes said.
Vance would not tip his hand too much.
“I want to be a Republican leader in our state for the next 20 years, at least,” he said.