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LIVE from the Crosscut Festival: The GOP is dead

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.

Panel titled “The GOP is dead. Long live the GOP!” at #crosscutfest

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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.