Pragmatic picnic

Mainstream Republicans show signs of life at this year's GOP Vashon barbecue.

The washed masses emerge from school buses onto the well-buttered turf of Vashon's Misty Isle Farms to gather for the annual Republican picnic. Thrown by grocery mogul and convicted GOP sugar daddy Tom Stewart, it's a day of pony rides and barbecue, flesh-pressing and hopeful political bloviation.

KVI talk jock John Carlson, comfortable in his persona as Everybody's Favorite Nephew, hosts the stage with presidential candidates Elizabeth Dole and Senator John McCain, and state pols like Senator Slade Gorton and Congressperson Jennifer Dunn. In an off year that ordinarily would be a ho-humdrum of county races, the day is energized by the very concept of electable Republican presidential candidates.

McCain, a moderate unpopular with leadership for his relentless pursuit of campaign reforms, delivers a stem-winder well-received by the crowd of 8,000. Dole seems to inspire less, but no one's complaining.

"We want someone who can win," says Kim Gage of Ballard, echoing the sentiment du jour.

Stereotypes don't fit here. These aren't fat cats in suits or overly underdressed country club swells in washer silk. These are mostly white, middle class, middle-aged folks wearing nylon and cotton and buttons that say "GOP—God's Own Party." Twenty-somethings are well represented, as are their grandparents, the WWIIs.

Booths show the width and breadth of the so-called "big tent." The National Rifle Association, the flat taxers, the Conservative Coffee Company, and the Discovery Institute are here. Initiative 695, the $30 car tab proposal, has two tables and seems to be supported heartily by picnickers, though the idea's met with smiles of profound ambivalence by the politicians who might have to deal with it. The ever-optimistic Log Cabin Republicans—the gay wing of the party whose table is usually closeted out to a spot among the cow-pats—is in the thick of things today, across, in fact, from the Evangelicals for Responsible Government. The Christian Coalition is absent as are signs of their favorite son, Gary Bauer. Social conservative backrunners Steve Forbes and Allen Keyes have modest tables.

They may all look alike, but there's plenty of diversity here, and that's been a problem. The religious right commandeered the state party in the 1970s and remains in control today. The Mainstream Republicans, a group of displaced moderates, has been trying to seize control back from the religious right. Their arguments are supported by the weight of recent electoral history.

Republicans haven't elected a governor in 18 years. Senator Slade Gorton, once considered a progressive, has been successful only by becoming a born-again conservative and picking his issues very carefully. Statewide successes have been by moderates and in offices not in the thick of governance, like those of Secretary of State Ralph Munro or late Lieutenant Governor Joel Pritchard.

In 1994, the GOP did win majorities in the state legislature and all but two of the state's nine congressional seats, but they squandered their success and turned off voters by forsaking day-to-day governing to become mired in far-right social issues like abortion, flag-burning, antihomosexuality, prayer in schools, school vouchers, and teaching creationism.

The voters did not look kindly on the new GOP majorities, and the party lost the state Senate and three Congressional seats two years later.

Munro says, "Instead of broadening our base, we've been narrowing it. If we don't return to the middle, we'll be beaten again."

In order to broaden the party's appeal to women, moderates would like to take abortion off the table. The voters have voted four times in 25 years not to interfere with a woman's choice—the present party rigid stance is a losing one, they say.

Moderates are making a push to get their people elected as precinct committee officers, where the real power is held in the state party—a place where the religious right is strong. Winning in these tiny constituencies is usually a simple matter of filing. "You win because no one runs against you." says Kirk Robbins, secretary of the Mainstream Republicans. "All you have to do is sit through long, boring meetings interspersed with sectarian prayers. People with lives don't do that, the fanatics do."

Moderates have their work cut out for them—their rivals have control already, and Robbins has doubts as to whether leaders like state party chair Dale Forman and Slade Gorton have the guts to face this. "If they do," he says, "we're there to help them, but otherwise we're just picking up pieces around here."

The religious right may actually prove of assistance to the moderates. There's a national discussion among "conviction conservatives" to get out of the Republican Party or politics altogether. Already out are two major leaders of Washington's religious conservatives—Bruce and Ellen Craswell. The Craswells joined the American Heritage Party after Ellen lost the governor's race in 1996. Bruce Craswell articulates a political antistrategy that seems to court defeat. "Our philosophy does not represent the majority of the people," he says, "but if I'm going to lose, I might as well lose representing the things I believe in."

These are welcome developments to Mainstream Republican state coordinator Chuck McClellan, who says, "I see a swing coming—it's visible in our current fundraising. With the loss of the Craswells and Linda Smith, the extremists are in disarray because they don't have a standard bearer."

"It's about winning elections," says Ralph Munro, and the crowd at Vashon last weekend seemed to agree. The question is: Can the era of the religious right end without the internecine battles that have crippled the party in the past? With the political season heating up early, the answer will come sooner than later.

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