Chris Vance is running out of time. The chair of the Washington State Republican Party has an ambitious work plan--the transformation of the state GOP into, as he puts it, "a Northwest version of George W. Bush." Vance knows how to get it done: attract candidates for the 2004 U.S. Senate race and governor's contest who are "conservative enough to unite our base" yet at the same time "able to reach out to suburban voters, especially suburban women." It goes without saying that these same candidates need to be able to raise at least $10 million for the Senate race against powerful incumbent Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and a minimum of $4 million against another popular Democrat in the gubernatorial matchup, probably Gov. Gary Locke. He also wants no more than one candidate in each race. In the past, the GOP has been famous for primaries so bruising that its standard-bearer limps into the general election. Vance wants these candidates in place by July. His biggest problem is that his list keeps getting shorter. With just a couple of months to go before his self-imposed deadline, can Vance pull it off?
"The Washington State Republican Party is in transition," admits the frank, voluble Vance. He is trying to distance the party from the image created in the 1990s, when Christian conservatives reigned supreme in the state GOP. In particular, the candidacies of religious rightists Ellen Craswell for governor in 1996 and Linda Smith for the Senate in 1998 left the impression that the Republicans were too extreme to win statewide. "What won't sell is harsh, in-your-face conservatism," says Vance. Yet, "It's not as simple as moving the party to the center. If I was trying to drive the pro-lifers out of the party, that would be divisive. Our [party] slogan is 'Working for All of Us.'" There is hunger among Republicans, who have been frozen out of major offices. There hasn't been a Republican governor since 1986. Murray's seat has been held by Democrats since 1987. And former Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., was defeated in 2000 by Democrat Maria Cantwell. All this, Vance says, helps Republicans put aside their differences to focus on victory.
Vance believes Democrats are vulnerable for a number of reasons. First, there's the "George Bush juggernaut. ... The political atmosphere is favoring the Republicans right now." Second, the state of the state is poor--high unemployment, transportation problems, a crisis in K-12 schools and higher education, and a terrible budget deficit. Vance characterizes Murray as "a political accident" who is out of her league as the state's senior senator. Locke's "act has worn thin." Since the recession began, the public has recognized Locke as the "ineffectual governor" that he is, Vance declares.
Paul Berendt, chair of the Washington State Democrats, gives a quick summation of Vance's analysis. "It's b.s.," he quips. "Sometimes you just have to wish your way into viability." Berendt believes the White House has written off Washington, where the Bush family has lost three times. He says Murray is the "most popular official in the state" and Locke's moderate and measured approach is "governing the way people want." Most tellingly, Berendt points out, Vance doesn't have any candidates stepping forward to challenge the Democrats. "They have had a real tough time finding credible candidates," he notes.
"My urgency increases every week," admits Vance. Things look brightest in the governor's race. King County Sheriff Dave Reichert is out working the state, and Western Wireless chairman and CEO John Stanton is on everyone's radar.
Every Republican activist who has watched Reichert, 52, interact with audiences drools over his charisma. He is movie-star handsome and has a heroic life story that he tells with humility--from his early days as a beat cop successfully disarming crazed criminals to his relentless pursuit of the Green River killer, whom he believes is now in custody.
There are a couple of big questions about him, however. First, is he a Republican? And second, is he cut out to be a politician?
His answer to both questions shows why he will be a formidable candidate if he chooses to run. Reichert confirms that if he seeks higher office, it will be as a Republican. But he never says, "I am a Republican." Instead, he says with great sincerity, "I've never seen myself as a Republican or a Democrat. Nothing is a Democratic or a Republican problem."
He also says, "I am not a politician. I don't play the game. I say what I think. The world of a cop is a world of right and wrong. People don't trust their government officials. I can change that. I like to take risks and I like to make decisions."
The GOP couldn't ask for better opening themes delivered by a better candidate. Talking with Reichert, one comes away with the sense that he is ready to run but is determined to avoid a contested primary. It seems like the only thing holding him back is a decision from Western Wireless' Stanton.
Reichert follows Vance's message carefully in the electioneering arena. Reichert says he will decide by July; he has met with Stanton; and he gives the strong impression that the two will strike a gentleman's agreement not to run against one another.
On paper, John Stanton, 47, would also make a great GOP candidate for governor. (Everyone says he has ruled out running for the Senate next year.) He is a loyal, active Republican. He was a major player in two successful telecommunications firms--Voicestream Wireless, now known as T-Mobile USA, and McCaw Cellular Communications, now AT & amp;T Wireless. And Stanton continues to direct Western Wireless. He is wealthy enough to eliminate any fundraising concerns--Forbes estimated his worth at $780 million in 2001. He is a strong leader in a state that has been lacking a dynamic executive. He is a moderate, pragmatic Republican, not an ideologue.
The problem is, as Vance puts it, Stanton "is trying to decide if he wants to be a politician." (Stanton did not respond to requests for an interview.) As founder and chief of a company that is struggling in the cutthroat wireless business, he undoubtedly feels a sense of responsibility toward his employees and shareholders. His family obligations are also a consideration, many people say, evidenced by the fact that he coaches two Little League teams, one for each son.
Bob Ratcliffe, a friend and business associate of Stanton's, doubts the executive will make the run. "He's got his hands full with Western Wireless," Ratcliffe says. Still, Stanton has met with Vance three times, as well as with other important GOP figures, like Secretary of State Sam Reed and King County Council member Rob McKenna. And Stanton "has promised me an answer by July," says the party chair.
Things seem less bright on the Senate side. Last month, U.S. Rep. Jennifer Dunn, R-Bellevue, the GOP's first choice for the Senate race, said she would seek re-election to her House seat rather than challenge Murray. Higher powers than Vance had been courting Dunn--President George W. Bush's chief political advisor, Karl Rove, had encouraged her to run for Senate--but to no avail. Democrats crowed that all the inducements in the world couldn't blind the savvy Dunn to the fact that Murray was too tough to beat. In an interview, Dunn deflected questions away from herself and toward the next candidate on the GOP's wish list--U.S. Rep. George Nethercutt, R-Spokane.
Nethercutt, 58, is an affable, low-key politician in his eighth year as a congressman. He is best known as the man who came out of nowhere to defeat the sitting speaker of the House, former U.S. Rep. Tom Foley, the Spokane Democrat, and then, six years later, breaking his pledge to limit his term.
As Nethercutt looks at the race, he raises an interesting set of issues: "transportation, our tax structure, and our business friendliness." It sounds more like a to-do list for a governor than a U.S. senator. He concedes as much but says, "I don't know that Patty Murray has been a strong person in advising our governor. Her vision is not as sharp as it should be and her record of accomplishment is questionable."
As for his own record, he touts his successful effort to open agricultural trade with Cuba and his leadership on diabetes research--hardly the stuff that fires a Senate campaign.
Nethercutt says family concerns are an important factor. "The personal sacrifice is a big part of this decision that weighs on my mind." In addition, he is actively pursuing a "cardinal's" post -- one of the most powerful roles in Congress as the chair of an Appropriations subcommittee.
Will Nethercutt run against Murray? Dunn says it's a "50/50 chance." Nethercutt says her odds are correct. Publicly Nethercutt isn't giving Vance much reason for hope. The best news he offered was to announce a meeting with the White House late last week to discuss the Senate run and pledging to make a final decision by July.
Vance concedes nothing. "The main reason we have been losing is we have not done our job. The party has not found one great candidate with everybody united behind them." He pledges, "By this summer you will know the Republican candidates for governor and senator."
George Howland Jr. is the politcal editor of the Seattle Weekly, where this story first appeared.