Demoralized GOP Meets; Fledgling Chair Displays Tact and Tone Deafness

This weekend, state Republicans will be meeting in Ocean Shores for an annual winter conference. Among the breakout sessions: “Improving Our Image in the Media” and “Taking a Census of the Political Right in Washington.” As local conservatives take their temperature, they will be looking to a new chair of the state GOP, Susan Hutchison, who frankly admitted when she came on board last August that the party is in dire shape.

Interestingly, the state parties of both Republicans and Democrats are at a crossroads. Democrats, too, will soon have a new leader; their longtime, rabble-rousing party head, Dwight Pelz, retired last week to travel the world.

As made clear by Hutchison’s remarks last summer, she’s got the harder job. The 2012 defeat of gubernatorial hopeful Rob McKenna, once considered the party’s shining star and a shoo-in for the state’s top job, has demoralized the faithful. Many onetime donors and political operatives have simply given up. “I could tell you names and names of people who were once super, super active who have just left,” says political consultant and former GOP party chair Chris Vance. There is one very active faction, he observes—Tea Party supporters—but they’re often to be found throwing bombs at their mainstream brethren. Says Vance: “The civil war in the Republican party is very real.”

Despite her media background, as a KIRO anchor, Hutchison has mostly kept out of the spotlight so far—an exception being when she complained that her $75,000 salary, $20,000 less than predecessor Kirby Wilbur’s, constituted gender discrimination.

In a wide-ranging interview with Seattle Weekly earlier this month, Hutchison appeared to be still settling into her role. It took her office a couple of days to agree to the interview. And at the beginning of the interview, she told me she is taping the conversation herself, then said she wants to begin by spelling her name—all of which conveys a certain nervousness about getting on the phone with a reporter. (Admittedly, SW isn’t the party’s favorite media outlet.)

Warming up as she went along, she agreed that the state party was demoralized after the McKenna loss. “Yes, we have some winning to do,” she said. She added nevertheless, “Every year is a new year in politics.”

She downplayed the civil war of which Vance speaks. “The Liberty Caucus,” she said, referring to a group much like the Tea Party, “tends to be young, very well read and social-media savvy. Those are skills the party needs. I look to them and I’m inspired.”

You’ve got to give Hutchison credit for tact. It’s a quality she also displayed when immigration activists demonstrated at the party’s Bellevue office last November. In contrast to Wilbur, who bizarrely tweeted that the female activists were ugly “witches and hags,” Hutchison issued a statement saying it was “unfortunate” that she was out of town and couldn’t hear their concerns.

Hutchison faces the danger of coming off as tone-deaf, though, over the red-hot subject of income inequality. When I asked her about it, she said that the issue is merely a ruse Democrats are using “to get people’s minds off Obamacare.” She then went on to say that, yes, there is some income inequality and one of the most glaring examples can be found by examining the above-average pay and benefits of government employees.

Conservatives in the legislature are on a tear to cut the pensions of state workers, so maybe it is Hutchison’s attempt to be on message. But she’s not going to do the Republican party any favors by overlooking the truly wealthy in order to make middle-class bureaucrats seem like the fattest cats around. Nor will dismissing the issue entirely endear the party to the vast numbers of people who feel the economy has left them behind, which is undoubtedly why some Republicans nationally are starting to address the topic (if only to offer a critique of liberal views).

To be fair, Hutchison did get around to those at the economic bottom. Unlike liberals arguing for a hike to the minimum wage, she focused in our discussion on the unemployed rather than the poorly paid. She argued that raising the minimum wage, as Seattle seems to be on the verge of doing, will not help those without jobs. “All it does is increase the pay of people already working,” she said.

Of course, raising the minimumm wage is not a popular idea in conservative circles. So whatever internal war she may be facing, chances are she’s not going to get much argument about that issue this weekend.

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