Republicans changed not the electorate. Slade Gorton, a long time environmental advocate was frustrated by the lack of recognition by the environmental community for his accomplishments in wilderness protection, clean air and clean water. He moved abruptly to the only side that consistently backed him - timber and rural interests. On issues like spotted owl and old growth forests he moved from solving the problem to using the problem as a symbol for rural Washington versus Seattle. He mounted a new Republican strategy called "surround King County" that focused on a coalition of economic conservatives, rural business interests and the religous right built on populist opposition to elitists and special interests in the city. On the old growth forest issue he even managed to suck in the Bush administration. Unfortunately, this new coalition was no longer a majority.
The Gingrich revolution swept into power a more extreme right group of Republicans united by far right religious ideology and rigid free market doctrine. As their majorities slipped away, the ideologues maintained control of the party caucuses and moderates like State Senaors Rodney Tom and Fred Jarret changed parties.
Today, Republicans represent only the two most rural congressional districts and only a third of the state legislature. These small minorities work against them. The remaining members represent only the purest districts generally rural and socially conservative. Lacking any swing districts in their caucus, their caucuses gain their energy from focusing on opposing environmental regulations, religious opposition to gay rights, and pro life. Out of touch with middle.
Obviously, this course isn't sustainable. Democrats have controlled the Governor's mansion in Olympia for 27 years now and at some point Republicans are going to attract a candidate who can rebuild a majority or come damn close. Attorney General McKenna appears to fit the bill.
McKenna manages hundreds of government attorneys in Washington State who represent state agencies and protect consumer interests. More than any other statewide elected official, McKenna commands the respect and admiration of his staff. My friends and neighbors in the A.G.'s office in Olympia believe that he listens to them and does his job well. Think about it for a minute. Government lawyers in Olympia are pretty much liberals right out of the box. This is no small feat and the mark of an excellent manager.
The man is bright, articulate and like the iconic Northwest Republican Gordon, he comes off as a bit serious perhaps even nerdy. His focus is laser picking up simple, symbolic issues which generate a lot of heat but not controversy; open government, public records, Internet safety, I.D. theft, methamphetamine abuse, and consumer protection.
McKenna does this without cutting his ties to the right. He recently sided with another 12 Republican Attorney Generals in calling the President's health care reform unconstitutional because it "buys off" Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson's with a special Medicaid subsidy for that state.
Environmentalists argue that he also parts company with traditional Northwest Republican moderates on environmental issues. While on the King County Council he was known by many as a strident property rights advocate.
The question is can McKenna appear to stay in the Center and win the in the primary? If Republicans manage to block a more conservative primary opponent he won't have to face the consequences of moves to the right to win in the primary hurting him in the general. How many of his more conservative King County green votes will count against him in the general?
McKenna is not the only successful Republican who has recently held statewide office. Former Commissioner of Public Lands Doug Sutherland was an excellent manager and a policy mediator in the Northwest Republican tradition. Secretary of State Sam Reed has resisted efforts to use his office to tip the political balance to the right and has followed the tradition of his true blue Northwest Republican Ralph Munroe who managed the office effectively and efficiently.
The bottom line is that Washington State likes moderates and will elect them...as long as Republicans are able to nominate them. Right now, surveying the field for the 2012 Governor's race, McKenna fits this bill better than any other name mentioned in both parties.