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July 31, 2013 at 5:49 AM

Who shall Republicans choose to replace Kirby Wilbur?

(Illustration by Kevin Kreneck / Op Art)

(Illustration by Kevin Kreneck / Op Art)

The departure of Kirby Wilbur as chairman of the Washington State Republican Party leaves open an important job, and it’s important that the party not mess up.

Washington needs a healthy Republican Party for the same reason it needs a healthy Democratic Party: so that the public has a choice, and feels safe about exercising it. In this state the Republicans have for a long time come in second. Of statewide offices it holds only the Secretary of State. In 2012 the party offered the best-qualified candidate available and lost. It contested three open seats for Congress and lost all of them. It has made some gains in the state Senate that allowed a de facto Republican takeover this year, but overall it is not doing well.

The chairman is responsible for raising money, recruiting candidates, running a get-out-the-vote effort, and being the face and voice of the party to the public.

The real question is bigger than the selection of chairman. It’s about what the party stands for: what Republicans agree on and what they agree to disagree on. “The chair needs to unite everybody,” says national committeewoman Fredi Simpson. “We have to follow the Reagan rule that if we agree on 80 percent of things, we are not enemies.”

But what’s in the 80 percent and what’s in the 20 percent? That’s the problem.

The new force in the party is the Ron Paul people, many of them organized in the Republican Liberty Caucus. Seattle trial lawyer Matt Dubin is Liberty Caucus chairman for King County, and on the organization’s national board. He is not seeking the chairman’s job, he says; he has a busy practice. But he says, “It’s my hope that liberty Republicans will have a say in selecting the next leader.”

The Paul people, who were new to the party, made a play for the state delegates for the national convention in 2012, and mostly lost. They felt shut out by many of the old-timers. Dubin says the trouble “hasn’t been with Kirby,” who said the right things though didn’t do as much as he could have. Others complain that some of the Paul people are impossible to deal with. Still, they are the new people at the door, and if you’re trying to fill the tent you think twice before kicking them out.

“You’ve got to find someone who can bring in the Ron Paul people, the social conservatives and the moderates,” said former state Rep. Bill Hinkle, a conservative who represented Cle Elum. His name has been batted around, and he admits he’s intrigued by the idea, but he has a good job heading the Rental Housing Association of Puget Sound and said he wouldn’t leave it for the sort of money Wilbur was making.

In contrast, Fredi Simpson said among Western states, only the Republicans of Colorado and Washington pay their chairman a salary. She’s for making it a volunteer position.

Alex Hays, head of Mainstream Republicans of Washington, has also been mentioned as a candidate. He is the head of a faction—the “mainstreamers” are the Republicans who would support abortion rights. He is a thoughtful guy; he also has a sense of what a pain the job is, dealing with all sorts of people who want their way, all the while dealing with such things as money-raising and how to get out the vote.

“If you think being the chairman of the state Republican Party is going to be exciting, you’re probably not going to be an effective chairman,” he says.

Retired Secretary of State Sam Reed, a dean of the moderates, recalls the time, decades ago, when there was a “Northwest Republican” brand: “Socially moderate, environmentally moderate and fiscally conservative.” It would be a way for the party to differentiate itself from the national Republican brand, which is too much influenced by hard-right conservatives in the Midwest and South.

My ten cents’ worth: The Republican Party cannot be a hard-right party, because of the sort of state Washington is. But it has to include some of the evangelicals’ sensibilities about moral responsibility and respect for religious liberty and some of the libertarians’ sensibilities about personal freedom. It has to represent the political interests of the private sector—limited regulation, limited taxes and a competitive labor market. Within the public sphere it has to defend education, including colleges, against the appetites of social spenders who would entice more people to become dependent on government. In transportation it has to defend the users of automobiles, buses and trucks against the claims for rail.

I think the best choice for chairman should be someone under 50, a person of the political type recently elected to the Legislature from the Seattle suburbs, someone with a personality as affable as Kirby Wilbur’s. And, yeah, with a thick skin.

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