GOP grassroots say they're getting mowed down in Washington state

Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.), chairwoman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), ventured out to Seattle over the July 4 weekend to see, one last time, if former gubernatorial candidate Dino Rossi couldn’t be prodded into challenging Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) next year. Rossi said no. On Friday, Rossi made his plans public, indicating that he’d like to make another run for the governor’s mansion.

Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.), chairwoman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), ventured out to Seattle over the July 4 weekend to see, one last time, if former gubernatorial candidate Dino Rossi couldn’t be prodded into challenging Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) next year. Rossi said no.

On Friday, Rossi made his plans public, indicating that he’d like to make another run for the governor’s mansion.

Three days later, Safeco CEO Mike McGavick announced he was resigning from the Seattle-based insurance giant.

And the next day, McGavick made it known that he was forming an exploratory committee to take on Cantwell.

Republicans in the nation’s capital hailed the nearly seamless segue from Rossi to McGavick, saying the party now had a “consensus candidate” to win back the seat once held by Sen. Slade Gorton (R), who lost to Cantwell in 2000.

But conservative activists in Washington state say GOP leaders in the nation’s capital and at state party headquarters are trying to anoint a candidate, sidelining the poll workers, phone-bank volunteers and precinct canvassers who form the backbone of the Republican Party — echoing sentiments of many activists in Florida, Michigan and elsewhere.

“Chris Vance did not consult me before he said he thought McGavick would be good,” said Bob Strauss, a member of the state party’s executive committee, referring to the state party chairman. “[Former Rep.] Jennifer Dunn [R-Wash.] didn’t call me and tell me that. Slade Gorton didn’t.”

Gorton did not return a phone call seeking comment.

Strauss added: “I work too hard in this party to have some kingmaker tell me who my candidate is going to be.”

Diane Tebelius, the GOP’s national committeewoman in Washington state, said a robust primary is just what the party needs.

“If you can’t debate someone in your own party, how are you going to debate someone on the other side?” asked Tebelius, a former federal prosecutor who is considering a Senate bid herself. (Tebelius previously lost a Republican congressional primary, raising questions, many party officials have said, about her ability to beat a sitting senator with millions of dollars in the bank.)

Mike Young, the Republican chairman for King County, which encompasses Seattle, added that there may be potential Senate candidates in eastern Washington.

Some in the GOP, sounding themes heard across the country at Republican and Democratic fundraisers, coffee klatches and pancake breakfasts, bemoan what they see as a process conducted from on high.

Allies of Rep. Katherine Harris (R-Fla.) and Detroit pastor Keith Butler (R) have complained that Republicans at the White House and the NRSC are focused on beating Democrats and not aware of what Republican voters are thinking or talking about back home. They add that Republicans in Washington are absorbed by how much money candidates have and what polls show, and they fear that the once-democratic sifting through of candidates and positions is being orchestrated by media consultants, pollsters and other “professionals” quick to jettison principle to win.

“What people think in the Beltway and what goes on back home are two different things, and there’s a disconnect there,” a Republican consultant said. “I think the NRSC does a really good job after the primary, but the lay of the land is just different down there. You’ve got polling stuff, but there are always undercurrents that people in the Beltway just miss.”

Butler, who has struggled to gain support as Republicans have waited to see if Domino’s Pizza CEO David Brandon would enter the Michigan Senate race, said simply: “The Republican Party did not recruit me.”

Republican officials insist they are sensitive to these perceptions in Washington state and elsewhere.

“Throughout the candidate-recruitment process, in relation to Washington state, there have been incredible amounts of coordination between Washington, D.C., and Washington state at every level,” NRSC spokesman Brian Nick said.

A Republican aide said the NRSC and Washington state Republicans had no choice but to recruit a backup candidate to take Rossi’s place should Rossi opt not to run.

“We needed to have a contingency plan so we’re not scrambling if he says no,” the aide said of Rossi, who spent months in court fighting unsuccessfully to overturn his gubernatorial loss. “The first potential problem is we don’t have anyone who’s really interested. The other potential problem is sometimes we do find somebody who would be great but it takes weeks to find him, or even months, and now we have several people in the primary, and that’s not going to work against Maria Cantwell.”

Cantwell raised $1.7 million in the second quarter and has more than $3 million in the bank.
The aide noted that Washington leans Democratic. Not only did President Bush lose the state last year but Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) trounced her Republican opponent, former Rep. George Nethercutt (R-Wash.).

Given the late GOP primary, in September 2006, the nominee will have little chance of winning without solid party support months in advance, the aide concluded.

Jane Abraham, who recently announced that she would not enter the GOP primary in Michigan, said in an e-mail message that she has “nothing but praise for the NRSC. … They have always been fair to all Republican candidates and offer their assistance and services to all. That was certainly the case in my situation.”

Some Republicans have grumbled, and Democratic campaign operatives have gleefully noted, that the GOP has had a tough time recruiting candidates in red states such as Nebraska, North Dakota and West Virginia. Leading Republicans also have given up on recruiting a candidate to challenge Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), even though New Mexico backed Bush last year.

Democrats, for their part, have struggled to find viable candidates in potentially competitive states such as Maine, Missouri and Nevada.