Live coverage from the Crosscut Festival
Live coverage from the Crosscut Festival

The final pan­el I attend­ed at the Cross­cut Fes­ti­val had the provoca­tive title, “The GOP is dead. Long live the GOP!” The dis­cus­sion was of course about the future of the Repub­li­can Par­ty, with a focus on Wash­ing­ton State.

Mod­er­at­ed by Austin Jenk­ins of TVW’s “Inside Olympia” and reporter for the North­west News Net­work, pan­elists includ­ed: Bill Bryant, Repub­li­can can­di­date for Gov­er­nor in 2016; for­mer Wash­ing­ton Attor­ney Gen­er­al and US Sen­a­tor Slade Gor­ton; Chair­man of the King Coun­ty Repub­li­can Par­ty, Lori Sote­lo; and Chris Vance who for­mer­ly served as a state rep­re­sen­ta­tive, King Coun­ty Coun­cil mem­ber, and Chair of the state Repub­li­can Party.

Jenk­ins start­ed the dis­cus­sion with the ques­tion that the title of the pan­el gives an answer to: is the Repub­li­can Par­ty in Wash­ing­ton dead?

Gor­ton says no. “Does the par­ty have prob­lems? Yes. So do the Democrats.”

Jenk­ins point­ed out that Wash­ing­ton has­n’t had a Repub­li­can Gov­er­nor since 1984.

Sote­lo replied that things ebb and flow, and that while it has been a while since there was a Repub­li­can Gov­er­nor, it will even­tu­al­ly be their turn as things cycle around. She says look­ing at the state house and sen­ate, Repub­li­cans are just one seat down in each cham­ber, and that most elec­tions are with­in five per­cent­age points.

“It’s com­pet­i­tive, it’s just that right now Democ­rats have the major­i­ty,” she said.

Bryant says that as a func­tion­ing par­ty, the health is strong, and the ques­tion is how it gets to be stronger, and that gets to the ques­tion of how to get to the Gov­er­nor’s Office. He notes that Repub­li­can can­di­dates for Gov­er­nor con­sis­tent­ly got 46 to 48% of the vote in the last four elec­tions. The prob­lem is that they do not do well in King Coun­ty, so they can’t break­through to statewide office. The key is get­ting a mes­sage that res­onates in King County.

In address­ing Vance, Jenk­ins point out that Vance is no longer a mem­ber of the Repub­li­can Par­ty, and asks why.

Vance said that the future of the Repub­li­can Par­ty is exceed­ing­ly bleak in Wash­ing­ton state. He said he decid­ed to leave the par­ty because he did­n’t believe any­thing they were say­ing any­more. He kept find­ing him­self hav­ing to point out more and more things that he did­n’t agree with the par­ty on, like Trump and the Alt-Right, trans­gen­der issues, and the “cru­el­ty and stu­pid­i­ty of poli­cies.” With­out agree­ing on issues, the only rea­son to stay would be pure trib­al­ism, so he is now Independent.

Vance con­tin­ued, say­ing that the pur­pose of a polit­i­cal par­ty is to gov­ern, and there is no real­is­tic sce­nario where the Repub­li­cans will gov­ern Wash­ing­ton in the near future.

“The par­ty is not going to die, but it is becom­ing increas­ing­ly irrel­e­vant,” he said. He loved mod­er­ates like Gor­ton, but there is no future for that here, in his esti­ma­tion, and some­thing new is needed.

Gor­ton respond­ed that both par­ties are cur­rent­ly at extremes, so there is no room left in the mid­dle. He point­ed out that more than 150,000 Wash­ing­ton vot­ers did not cast a bal­lot for any of the eight peo­ple on the Wash­ing­ton bal­lot for Pres­i­dent, which he says shows that nei­ther par­ty is strik­ing a chord right now.

In the most unbe­liev­able moment of not just this pan­el but the whole day, Sote­lo said that she did­n’t know what “Alt-Right” meant until this morn­ing when she looked it up. She said that it does not apply to any­one she works with in the Repub­li­can Par­ty. There were dozens of groans from the audience.

Sote­lo con­tin­ued to say that there is a mis­con­cep­tion that the par­ty is mono­lith, but it is def­i­nite­ly not, espe­cial­ly in King County.

She dis­missed the idea of the Alt-Right as a force in the par­ty, say­ing “every par­ty has weirdos. The folks that I know are not racist…Anyone that is offen­sive, it is our job to push them back. The Repub­li­can Par­ty that I know is not racist. The grass­roots are good, hon­est peo­ple, as hard­work­ing as you.”

In my opin­ion, these com­ments high­light­ed not only her mis­un­der­stand­ing of racism as a struc­tur­al issue, not just a mat­ter of indi­vid­ual prej­u­dices, but were shock­ing in reveal­ing her lack of knowl­edge of cur­rent events and dis­con­nec­tion with the cur­rent dia­logues and con­cerns in the Unit­ed States.

The woman next to me looked at me in com­plete shock at Sotelo’s com­ments, and asked me if I believed that she real­ly did­n’t know what the Alt-Right was until today. I said I was­n’t sure, and that I did­n’t know which would be worse: that Sote­lo was lying about not know­ing what the Alt-Right was, or actu­al­ly not know­ing about the Alt-Right. Either is remark­able and unacceptable.

Vance said that he spent decades push­ing back against the idea that the GOP was racist, but that the par­ty in the past was dra­mat­i­cal­ly dif­fer­ent to how it is today. He said “racist” may not be the exact right term for the par­ty cur­rent­ly, but that they ARE nativist for sure, cit­ing the empha­sis on Mus­lim bans, cut­ting legal immi­gra­tion in half, and gen­er­al­ly being iso­la­tion­ist and pro­tec­tion­ist in attitude.

Gor­ton said that Vance is “look­ing through the wrong end of the tele­scope.” He says that Con­gress in the last year has passed a “reg­u­lar Repub­li­can agenda.”

Bryant point­ed out that nation­al issues are dif­fer­ent than local issues for Repub­li­cans, and said that it real­ly is like the old PEMCO com­mer­cials that we are “a lit­tle bit dif­fer­ent here.” He said that Repub­li­cans used to own the envi­ron­men­tal agen­da when he was young, and many Repub­li­cans are envi­ron­men­tal­ist, so they should dis­tin­guish them­selves from the nation­al par­ty on those issues. He said that Wash­ing­ton Repub­li­cans need to remind peo­ple of the core beliefs of the par­ty and reclaim their North­west Repub­li­can roots, which are a lit­tle bit different.

Vance said he used to be mak­ing speech­es like Bryant just did, but it does­n’t work. Every­body nom­i­nat­ed for statewide office runs as a mod­er­ate, but still loses.

He says there are two prob­lems with Wash­ing­ton Repub­li­cans try­ing to dis­tin­guish them­selves from the nation­al Repub­li­can agen­da. The first is that if they dis­avowed Trump, peo­ple would imme­di­ate­ly lose their seats because of the nation­al com­mit­tee. Sec­ond­ly, pol­i­tics is not local, it is nation­al. It is impos­si­ble to break away from the nation­al brand, and that is going to get worse in the Trump era.

Sote­lo replied that the local par­ty sup­ports all can­di­dates and elect­ed offi­cials in the par­ty, from Trump all the way down. Sote­lo received more groans for this comment.

Gor­ton said that it is a mis­take to think that the future is going to be the same as the present, and con­tin­ue going in the same direc­tion, that we can’t assume that things are going to be more of the same. He thinks dynam­ic lead­ers will cre­ate change, since that is how things have hap­pened in the past.

Bryant says that we need to pay atten­tion to the sub­urbs to see where the state is going. The sub­urbs used to be solid­ly Repub­li­can and they aren’t any­more, but peo­ple are not mov­ing to the Democ­rats, they are sick of every­one. He says peo­ple are look­ing for can­di­dates that will talk about things that are effect­ing their lives and the issues they care about, and they want peo­ple in office that will pro­vide solutions.

Jenk­ins then asked every­one on the pan­el thi­er pre­dic­tions for the 2018 elections.

Vance said he is now part of a nation­wide move­ment to elect mod­er­ate inde­pen­dents, and says they will have can­di­dates on the bal­lot this year. He thinks the Repub­li­cans are def­i­nite­ly going to lose seats this year, but is not sure if it will be the typ­i­cal mid-term shift away from the par­ty of the Pres­i­dent, or a “tsuna­mi.”

Sote­lo sound­ed more opti­mistic, say­ing that in King Coun­ty that there is a shift towards the south and south­west, and that she expects the par­ty to con­tin­ue to be strong there, as well as in the 5th Con­gres­sion­al dis­trict. She thinks Repub­li­cans will be com­pet­i­tive in all races in the suburbs.

When Gor­ton was about to speak, Jenk­ins inter­rupt­ed to point out that Gor­ton turned 90 last month, gen­er­at­ing respect­ful applause from the audi­ence. Jenk­ins then asked Gor­ton what gives him hope that Repub­li­cans will be able to get the gov­er­nor­ship again.

Gor­ton stat­ed that big changes take place nation­al­ly, and by reflec­tion in the states, when big chal­lenges come up, and he notes that Don­ald Trump could be one of these chal­lenges. He thinks that Trump has been good for Democ­rats, and that Repub­li­cans will do poor­ly in this elec­tion, but that it is temporary.

Bryant said that there is a sol­id foun­da­tion for Wash­ing­ton Repub­li­cans, con­sis­tent­ly only a few per­cent­age points off in elec­tions, where­as Repub­li­cans in oth­er places like Cal­i­for­nia face much larg­er mar­gins. He says the chal­lenge this year is “ugly noise on the nation­al lev­el” and peo­ple not look­ing beyond the par­ty label.

Jenk­ins asked Vance what advice he would give to his for­mer par­ty. Vance said that he would “dou­ble- and triple-down” on Bryan­t’s ear­li­er com­ments about point­ing out how Wash­ing­ton Repub­li­cans are different.

“Dis­avow Don­ald Trump,” he said, draw­ing sus­tained applause from the audi­ence. He con­tin­ued to say that they need to show how they are dif­fer­ent from the nation­al par­ty and lead­er­ship, and they need to be “unmis­tak­ably clear that they are not part of the insanity.”

When Jenk­ins next asked Sote­lo what the par­ty could or should do, she reassert­ed that the job of the par­ty is to sup­port their can­di­dates and elect­ed offi­cials. She said her job is to be a cheer­leader for the par­ty and it’s philoso­phies and ideals.

Bryant said that “this is what we need, peo­ple here at cock­tail hour on a Sat­ur­day night hav­ing these dis­cus­sions. Divi­sive­ness is killing us.” He said that increas­ing the dia­logue is what our state needs.

Gor­ton said that he does­n’t rec­og­nize the par­ty that Vance is talk­ing about. He said he goes back to D.C. reg­u­lar­ly to see old friends and col­leagues and that they are good, hard­work­ing peo­ple, and some of them do have issues with the President.

He said that we need to be more will­ing to lis­ten to one anoth­er, even when we don’t agree. He said there is no over­lap of the par­ties in Con­gress now, like there used to be when he was in office.

“That mid­dle is the key to the solu­tion to many of our problems.”

At least we need to start talk­ing to each oth­er in a civ­il fash­ion, Gor­ton concluded.

Adjacent posts