King County voters sinking Republican chances in statewide races

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SEATTLE — Republicans around here are like Sisyphus, eternally laboring their electoral rock but never pushing it to the top.

The hill, for them, is King County. And the news is: It’s getting steeper.

The Aug. 7 primary had buried in it some of the most foreboding election returns for local Republicans in generations.

It isn’t that the nine GOP candidates running statewide did badly everywhere. Most places they did just fine. But in King County, it was a wipeout for the ages.

The reason this matters is that King County contains a sort of pass/fail line for Republicans. They must earn at least a 40 percent share of the vote here. If they don’t, the county is so big they have virtually no mathematical chance of winning a statewide race.

Yet no Republican got anywhere near the magic 40 in the primary. Candidate for governor Rob McKenna came closest — but with an anemic 34.4 percent of the vote. If you add the votes for all the Republicans competing in each of the nine statewide races (for offices such as U.S. senator, auditor and so on), the highest the GOP summed in any race in King County was 38 percent (in the voting for attorney general.)

That is epically bad. Even in the primary in 2008 — a terrible year for Republicans — King County voters still gave more than 40 percent support to the GOP in three separate races. In two the party’s candidate went on to win in November.

We’re not supposed to make too much of primaries. But some GOP insiders are saying these results were so awful they can’t be ignored.

“It’s absolutely true, if they don’t do better than this in King County — a lot better — they will lose,” said Chris Vance, a former chairman for the state Republican party and now a consultant. “They will all lose.”

What struck me as most Sisyphean is that 2012 was going to be different. This time, the party has hardly fielded a pack of fundamentalist right-wingers. Their top three candidates — McKenna, attorney general hopeful Reagan Dunn and lieutenant governor candidate Bill Finkbeiner — all are moderates and socially somewhere in the middle of the road.

Crucially, all are also from King County. Dunn has made such an appeal to his liberal home — by supporting gay marriage and abortion rights — that he got barred from a few Republican events in other parts of the state. Finkbeiner, who famously crossed his party to be the clinching vote for a gay civil rights law some years back, is married to a Democrat and lists that his top goal in Olympia is to “decrease partisan bickering.”

None of that made a whit of difference. All three had their heads handed to them by local voters anyway.

Democratic consultant Christian Sinderman says the story is that the state is getting even more polarized, if that’s possible. Conservative counties are getting redder, while King has become impenetrably blue.

The voting in King was “pretty shocking,” he said.

“McKenna especially was supposed to have that secret sauce that would get King County to back a Republican, or at least be lukewarm,” Sinderman said. “The primary sure blew that up.”

Vance blames the “national brand of the Republican party.”

“Around here the national party is viewed as anti-progress, anti-science, Christian crusaders. It’s the worst possible fit with the King County voter you need to reach to win.”

Wasn’t this election supposed to be about jobs?

Vance says the GOP brand is so toxic in Seattle and parts of King County that issues may not matter. He suggests they address the brand problem head on.

Example: McKenna could cut TV ads that say something like “I understand you probably don’t like Republicans,” Vance said. But then make a case that one-party control isn’t working, so why not take a chance on a different kind of a Republican?

It’s open to debate how different McKenna really is (his lawsuit against health reform seemed exactly like national Republicans). But the point about one-party control is well-taken. It can lead to complacency, or worse, corruption, when one side dominates completely.

Right now, unless there’s some big shift, the party is at risk of losing every statewide elected office. The last time that happened was 1960 — 52 years ago.

Former state GOP chairman Luke Esser used to joke that if he resurrected Abe Lincoln and put him on the ballot, he’d still get walloped in Seattle and King County.

Dead as Lincoln is what this party’s about to be if it doesn’t try something new. And fast.

Danny Westneat’s email is dwestneat@seattletimes.com

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