(adapted from an interview with Geoffrey Kabaservice)
From the end of World War II until the 1980s, the Washington State Republican Party, like most state Republican organizations, was divided between a moderate faction and a right-wing faction who were at war with each other. Unusually, in Washington State the moderates won: people like Senator Slade Gorton and Congresswoman Jennifer Dunn. I worked for some of those moderate Republicans as a staffer, then won elections to state and local office and served as the Washington State Republican Party chairman. In 2016, I was the Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate. But the next year, I left the Republican Party. I now feel that the only thing that can save American politics is the creation of a third party.
I attended Western Washington University in the early ‘80s, and I became head of the Young Republicans there. I was always interested in politics. When I graduated, I got a job with the congressional campaign of Rep. Rod Chandler, another moderate Republican who represented the Eastside region of the Seattle metropolitan area. I then got hired as a staff person for the Washington State Senate Republicans in Olympia. When I was 26, I ran for the state House and lost, but two years later, in 1990, I won. In 1994, I was elected to the King County Council. In 2001, I was elected chairman of the Washington State Republican Party, a job I held for five years.
Ever since I first came to the state legislature, I’ve always considered myself a junior partner in the firm of Gorton & Dunn. They were my mentors, they were the leaders. A lot of us moderate Republicans got elected from the King County suburbs, and we kind of stuck together.
There was an uneasy relationship between the rural Republicans and the suburban Republicans. The rural Republicans were much more conservative and religious. The base was always to the right of moderate Republicans like Slade Gorton and me, but because Washington had a blanket primary (and now has a top-two primary) and no party registration, the right couldn’t control the nominating process. This is not one of those states where the rural places can outvote the cities and suburbs; Seattle and Tacoma and the major suburbs are too great a proportion of the population. So the Washington State Republican Party, in order to govern, had to maintain some kind of a truce between its rural and suburban wings — a coalition of wheat farms and cul-de-sacs.
The principal issue that suburban voters were concerned about was education, so the moderate Republicans’ political strategy was to outflank the Democrats on that subject. Our pitch was, “We don’t want to raise your taxes, but we want to put more into education. The Democrats want to put your money into social services, not your schools.” I was endorsed by the teachers’ union when I first ran for reelection, and so were a lot of other Republicans. The last Republican governor in Washington State was John Spellman, who was elected in 1980, and his second budget was the last time that K-12 education got over 50 percent of the state’s budget. Voters remembered that, and we continued to make it a big campaign theme: “We are going to get back to 50 percent for education.” It was at that time that you began to see the rise in Republican support for vouchers and charter schools, but Washington State suburban Republicans always campaigned on straightforward support of public education.
I began to see a growing conservative hostility toward government a few years before the Tea Party movement began. I remember once when I was state party chairman, I got a phone call from the editorial page editor at the Columbian in Vancouver. He said, “Chris, we just had our pre-session community meeting with the Chamber of Commerce and all of the legislators from Clark County. Most of the Republican legislators didn’t show up, and those that did were against everything! They were against roads, they didn’t want to dredge the Columbia River, they were against building a new bridge — anything that spends any money!” When that attitude became more widespread with the Tea Party, the Republican Party became more and more anti-civic.
What the conservatives have never understood is that suburbanites want their representatives to help solve practical problems. They want to know the answer to questions like, “What are you going to do to make my kid’s school better? Why isn’t there a park in this neighborhood? What are you going to do to make my commute easier?” Republicans used to have answers to those questions, but now increasingly they don’t.
I started running for the U.S. Senate against the Democratic incumbent, Patty Murray, in 2015. At that time, the political world looked really different from how it looks now. President Obama’s approval ratings were low. Senator Murray’s approval ratings, which had never been very high, were around 41 percent. One poll found that she was under fifty percent in a head-to-head matchup against me. Most Republicans around here thought that the national party would nominate Jeb Bush as its presidential candidate; we were told that he was going to be a great fundraising colossus and everyone would love him. I thought 2016 was going to be a big Republican year, and that we could be competitive and win.
I was driving around the state raising money, everything was on track, everything was great — and then in the early months of 2016, Trump started winning all the primaries. I thought, “This can’t be real, it can’t be happening.” I knew that at some point I was going to be asked if I supported Trump or not. I couldn’t avoid that question as the Republican senatorial nominee. And I knew that I couldn’t support Trump.
I was with our state party chair the weekend before the Indiana Republican primary, in late April or early May of 2016. If Trump won that primary, he would have the nomination locked up. I said to her, “Trump is going to win on Tuesday and he’s going to be the nominee.” “Oh, that’s not going to happen,” she protested. And then it did. So I had a big press conference in downtown Seattle to say that I wouldn’t vote for Trump. There were a lot of cameras — the media loved the spectacle of a Republican senatorial nominee saying he wasn’t going to support Trump — and several opinion writers wrote columns about how brave I was.
But the immediate result was that money stopped coming into my campaign. Small donors stopped donating, big donors cancelled their events. The money just stopped. It didn’t really matter, since now that Trump was going to be at the top of the ticket I knew that there was no chance to win in Washington State. But it got really uncomfortable going to party events. Twice, my son and I nearly got into fistfights with Trump supporters. So in the last month, we just stopped campaigning. We all thought Trump would lose, and that Republicans would then come to their senses. We could help rebuild the party, and then there would be another Senate race in two years.
And then Trump won. In hindsight, I think that what happened was that the party’s leaders — including me — failed to recognize that they were dealing with a changing base. A political party has three levels, like a pyramid. At the top are the elites: big donors, consultants, candidates. At the second level are the activists: people who spend hours and hours at a precinct caucus and become county chairs and serve in other local offices. And then at the bottom is the base, who are by far the most numerous. They are the people who vote in primary elections, and that’s what matters most — because the party is not defined by its platform, it’s defined by its candidates.
In 2016, the elites and the activists lost control of the party. The activists never supported Trump. I spent the whole spring and summer driving around the state every weekend to county conventions and meetings. You’d walk into the high school gymnasium for a County convention, and there would be Rubio signs, lots of Cruz signs — nothing for Trump. Nothing. At the Roanoke Conference in early 2016, attended by hundreds of party activists, they took a straw poll and Rubio finished first and Kasich finished second. Trump got three votes. I don’t mean he got three percent; he got three votes.
But the base has changed. The base now are predominantly angry, white, non-college-educated. They blame immigrants and the Chinese. They watch Fox News and they have listened to Lou Dobbs tell them for years that trade deals are bad and the elites are coming to get them. They are protectionist, isolationist, nativist, and irrationally populist, and they like it that way. If Trump left the White House tomorrow, they wouldn’t suddenly nominate John Kasich to replace him; they’d nominate Donald Trump, Jr., or someone else who would carry on the Trump legacy. And this isn’t a few people — it’s 25 percent of America.. There’s no going back to the way the party used to be.
I didn’t leave the Republican Party right away. After the election, people close to me said, “Give Trump a chance. You never know how he might act as president.” I even had people encouraging me to try to get a job in the administration. There were a lot of Republicans who had assumed Trump would lose and so didn’t vote for him, and then they had to bend the knee and swear loyalty. I wouldn’t do that, but I agreed that I would give him a chance and see what he would do. And then the very first thing he did was to try to impose the racist Muslim travel ban. At that point I realized that he would do exactly what he said he would do. So I started writing articles and speaking out against him.
But it took me until the fall of 2017 to finally say, “I can’t call myself a Republican anymore, because the party no longer agrees with me on anything.” That was critical. It would be one thing if I found Donald Trump personally distasteful but he stood for the Reaganite positions that used to be associated with the Republican Party. I might have held my nose and gone along with him if he had been pro-free trade, if he cared about bringing down the debt, if he supported NATO.
But Trump has caused the Republican Party to abandon those issues along with its principles. Washington is the most trade-dependent state in the nation, but now the Republican Party is protectionist. The party that used to support the Teddy Roosevelt tradition of environmentalism now claims that climate change is a hoax, and that preserving wilderness areas means taking away someone’s private property rights. The party that used to stand for civil rights now demonizes brown people.
And that has been electoral poison for Republicans — even moderate Republicans — in Washington State.
One of the great things about politics and sports is that there’s a scoreboard, so you can see who’s winning. Since Trump became the Republican presidential nominee, Republicans in Washington State have lost twelve state legislative seats and one Congressional seat. The party had a 25-24 majority in the state Senate in 2016, and now they’ve lost five seats and are down 28-21. Republicans were within two seats of having a majority in the House, and now they have lost seven seats and are down 57-41. And the situation is only going to get worse.
There are still a number of moderate Republicans in Washington State, and they think that they can return to power if they nominate moderate candidates of the sort who used to win in the suburbs. But what they don’t realize is that politics has been nationalized, just as Yascha Mounk pointed out in a terrific New Yorker article last year called “The Rise of McPolitics.” All politics now is national and homogenous, like McDonald’s. A Republican in Connecticut is the same as a Republican in Idaho, and a Democrat in Arizona is the same as a Democrat in New York. The national message is the only thing that matters.
Moderates in Washington State have continued to control the Republican Party. Our platform is not that crazy. Our nominees for governor and U.S. Senator have nearly all been reasonable, pragmatic King County moderates. But since 2016, we have been losing and losing and losing, and it has gotten worse with each election. It has nothing to do with anything locally. It’s that the national brand over time — and especially since Trump — has become so toxic that no matter how moderate a candidate you are, if there’s an “R” after your name, you’re done.
Steve Litzow was a state senator from Mercer Island who was a pro-choice, pro-gay marriage Republican who supported raising taxes to fund education. He tried to distance himself from Trump in the 2016 election, even calling him a fascist on Facebook— and he got creamed by a first-time Democratic candidate. Washington State Republicans did not abandon moderation, but our voters just don’t buy it anymore. If you’re a Republican, you’re with Trump — period, end of conversation. And there’s no chance the brand will recover after Trump, at least not for the foreseeable future.
The Republicans have lost the suburbs, maybe forever. And the result is that in just the last few years, Washington has gone from being a purple state to one of the brightest blue states in America. That is partly because of growing diversity and the alienation of minority groups from the Republican Party under Trump. But it’s more because Washington is one of the most highly educated states in the nation, and white college-educated voters — particularly women — have come to hate Republicans. They are the swing voters in Washington State. And the result is that suburban state legislative districts that had long been dominated by Republicans, some of which had never elected a Democrat, are now so uncompetitive for Republicans that the party no longer even fields candidates there.
The only realistic way for the party to have a chance of regaining power would be if it explicitly denounced Donald Trump and made clear that Washington State Republicans are not in line with the national Republican Party. And then they would have to fight to take the party back. They would have to start at the precinct level, and then battle over the elections of county delegates, and take the fight up from the grassroots. That’s how the Goldwater movement succeeded in the ‘60s, and that’s what the left is doing in the Democratic Party. But the moderates don’t want to challenge Trump because the base loves him, and the moderates don’t want to challenge the base.
The state party didn’t cause the problem — Trump is the problem, and before Trump it was the Tea Party — but they’re not doing anything to fix it. Neither are organizations like Mainstream Republicans of Washington, which is supposed to be a defender of moderate Republicans. They are simply unwilling to fight an intra-party battle or even to criticize other Republicans. You need radical moderates to stand up and say, “This is wrong, and Trumpism cannot define our party.” But no one is doing that, and no one’s going to do it.
I thought that I would be part of a big parade of people leaving the Republican Party. I remember having conversations with people who, before the 2016 election, told me, “God, if that guy wins, I’m going to have to leave the party.” But Trump won and they’re still there. It has been the biggest shock of my adult life to see how little honor people have, and how little willingness to stand by principle. I did not expect that.
I still believe that there’s still a need for a fiscally responsible, moderate party in Washington State. Now that the Republican Party is headed toward permanent minority status, we’re starting to have the same problems of one-party Democratic rule that they have in California. One of the biggest problems is that while the courts have ruled that the state has to fully fund K-12 education and not rely on local levies, the Democrats just haven’t complied — but Republicans aren’t yelling about it because they don’t believe in public schools and don’t want to do anything that would cost more money. The old suburban Republican Party would be at war right now with the Democrats over education funding — and transportation funding and infrastructure funding, which are also becoming big problems. But the Republicans who represent rural districts know that their voters don’t care about those issues.
Many of the Republicans who know who Trump really is have made the devil’s bargain, or they have just walked away from politics and are trying to enjoy life. I can’t do that. Maybe I’m crazy, but I keep thrashing around looking for Yavin 4 — that’s the rebel base, if you’re not a Star Wars nerd — and some way to fight back.
So I have come to believe that what we need is a third party. When I was searching on the internet, I found something called the Centrist Project, which has since been renamed Unite America. As of 2018, they were trying to form a political party to elect independents as the precursor to creating a third party. Their idea was that there should be a suburban-based, moderate party that can win fifteen or twenty seats in the state House and serve as the fulcrum to force compromise. I got in touch with them and they invited me to a meeting in Philadelphia. There were about fifty of us, and I thought, “This is my new team!”
So I went home and created a Washington State affiliate of Unite America. Together with Brian Baird, who is a former Democratic U.S. representative, I called a meeting of a hundred people, and Brian agreed to be co-chair. We created a PAC called Washington Independents and we set out to try to elect some independents to the Washington State legislature. We endorsed three candidates and funded two of them, and one made it through the primary.
And then election day 2018 came and the whole thing crashed and burned. All of the independents got crushed. Unite America is now turning its attentions to electoral reform.
I’m not against electoral reform. But I live in a state that has nearly every form of electoral reform you can think of — no gerrymandering, no party registration, wide-open primaries, a bipartisan redistricting commission — and it doesn’t matter. We still elect nothing but left-wing Democrats and right-wing Republicans.
In my opinion, the only thing that’s going to save American politics is the creation of a third party that will force politics back to the center. I was briefly excited that Howard Schultz was going to run for president as an independent. I wrote a guest editorial in the Seattle Times about how Schultz might be the answer. And then that effort also crashed and burned.
The independent groups have floundered because they have been unwilling to take a position on issues. That’s what we found, both in our polling and in the 2018 elections. We thought that independents could just say, “Both parties are terrible, I’ll clean up the system, vote for me.” But then voters would say, “That’s nice. What are you going to do about my health care? Where are you on guns? What do you think about abortion and climate change?” Politics ultimately is about ideas, and we had no answers to those questions.
I’m not an optimist. I think things are terrible and getting worse. I hope this country survives the 2020 elections. The two parties live on completely different planets nowadays and hate each other. If you’re a moderate like me, you’re forced to decide which of these two horrible beasts you’re going to vote for. How long can America survive with a far-left party and a far-right party and nothing in the middle? That’s a situation that’s guaranteed to create cynicism and anger — and that’s how democracies fail.
That’s why I believe this country needs a One Nation party, which stands for capitalism with a human face and can navigate between Trump’s populist insanity and Bernie Sanders’ socialism. Perhaps the Democratic Party will choose that path. If they do not, we will need a new party. That’s the safest, clearest path back to sanity. But the odds are long and the hour is late.
Chris Vance is a former chair of the Washington State Republican Party and a former Metropolitan King County Council member and state representative.