Political veteran Chris Vance joins host Geoff Kabaservice to offer some insight into his time in the Washington state Republican Party – how they won elections on a local level, what role moderate ideas played in winning elections, and how everything changed once Trump became the Republican nominee for President in 2016. Concerned by the ideological trends in the party and the demand that no Republican criticize Trump, Vance has become an advocate for third party. He explains why the party seemingly changed so quickly with the nomination of Trump, and why he does not believe that moderate Republicans can continue in either the Republican or Democratic parties. As for the big question, “Is a third party viable,” Vance believes that it is.
Chris Vance: But I figured, “Okay, Trump’s going to lose. I can help rebuild the party because I did the right thing and came out against him early.” And then he won. And then the minute you knew that was going to happen, I was like, “My God, I’m in the ultimate political wilderness.”
Geoff Kabaservice: Hello! I’m Geoff Kabaservice for the Niskanen Center. Welcome to the Vital Center Podcast, where we try to sort through the problems of the muddled, moderate majority of Americans drawing upon history, biography, and current events. I’m very pleased to be joined today by Chris Vance, who’s a former Republican politician, a public affairs consultant and media commentator, an adjunct professor at the Evans School of Public Policy at the University of Washington, and a senior fellow with the Niskanen Center.
Chris was first elected to the Washington State House of Representatives in 1990. And from 1994 to 2001, he served on the King County Council — King County’s seat is Seattle, and it’s either the nation’s 12th or 13th most populous county, with a population of over 2 million people. In 2001, Chris was elected chairman of the Washington State Republican Party, and he served in that capacity until 2006. In 2016, he was the Washington State Republican Party’s candidate for the U.S. Senate. He received 41% of the vote and outperformed the party’s presidential nominee, Donald Trump, by over 100,000 votes.
Chris became a political independent in the fall of 2017 and has written extensively on how Trump’s domination of the GOP has left millions of former Republicans like himself politically homeless. He was recently one of the 150 initial signers of the “Call for American Renewal,” a political manifesto issued by a group of mainly Republican and former Republican officials and activists, including several former members of Congress. The manifesto came out on May 13th, one day after the ousting of Liz Chaney as the chair of the House Republican Conference.
In a recent Seattle Times op-ed entitled “A New Movement to Restore or Replace the Republican Party,” Chris outlined the core American principles to which the movement behind the “Call for American Renewal” is dedicated. These principles include truth, democracy, the Constitution, and the rule of law, as well as opposition to nativist, isolationist authoritarianism. Chris emphasized that politically, “We will work in partnership with others to elect candidates who share our goals, including moderate Democrats, courageous, principled Republicans, or those running under a new party banner. As this movement takes shape, I will be working to explore the possibility of creating a Washington State chapter.” So Chris, thank you for waiting patiently through that long introduction and welcome.
Chris Vance: It’s great to be here.
Geoff Kabaservice: Chris, can you tell our listeners how you got interested and involved in politics?
Chris Vance: Oh, wow. That’s like asking how I got interested and involved in breathing. I don’t know, Geoff. I mean, it was in high school, maybe before that. I was just always very interested in politics. Maybe I was first drawn by the competition of it. I was an athlete when I was young, played all sorts of sports, and I just always was drawn to politics. And I went to college at Western Washington University, and it was the fall of 1980 and I was very enamored with Ronald Reagan and what he was talking about and what he was trying to do. And I got involved in the College Republicans, and at some point realized that actually you can make a career of politics. I changed my major from journalism to political science and started volunteering for campaigns and worked on campaigns. And I got an internship in a member of Congress’s office, my last quarter in school, who then hired me to work on his campaign —
Geoff Kabaservice: Was that Rod Chandler?
Chris Vance: Rod Chandler, who was really an excellent member of Congress and spent 10 years on the House Ways and Means Committee. One of the types that you don’t see anymore. He didn’t care about getting headlines, Rod just did the work. And then like so many other young staffers, I ran for office and got elected. And well, there you go, I moved on from there. But I don’t know where and how it began, but I was always interested in politics and always conservative — what I thought was a conservative.
Geoff Kabaservice: Chris, most of our listeners who follow West Coast politics will know that the Republican Party in states like Washington, Oregon, and California has been reduced to an unpopular and powerless minority. And in most of these states, the party marginalized itself by going too far in the direction of right-wing Trumpiness. And in fact, the Oregon Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate in 2020, Jo Rae Perkins, was an active QAnon conspiracy theorist. But what people may not realize is that from the early 1960s and right through the 1990s, when you were serving in the state legislature, the Republican Party in Washington State was both highly competitive with the Democrats and dominated by moderate Republicans.
Chris Vance: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, California used to be the center of the universe for Republicans. Washington and Oregon were never that. From the Depression on, Washington definitely heavily leaned Democratic, but we Republicans were a viable, competitive opposition party. We would sometimes elect governors and U.S. senators and win majorities in the House and Senate. I mean, we won the governor’s race in 1964, ‘68, and ‘72 and ‘80.
But over time, what’s happened is — two things have happened. The national message… This is even before Trump. The national message became so toxic to Washington State, which is one of the most progressive states in the nation on social issues. I mean, we legalized abortion before Roe v. Wade. We legalized same-sex marriage before the Supreme Court. We legalized recreational marijuana use before virtually anybody else. So Washington was way out of step even with George W. Bush’s Republican Party.
But we would run very moderate candidates from the King County suburbs: people like Dan Evans and Slade Gorton who won multiple elections here for attorney general, secretary of state. And they won. Then we continued to nominate moderates like that, like my friend Rob McKenna — former attorney general, former Seattle port commissioner — Bill Bryant, and I guess myself. And we didn’t win. And after a while, you didn’t even come close. Because again, the national brand. Even if you ran as pro-environment, “I do believe in climate change,” tolerant on social issues, way to the left — if you had the word “R” after your name, you were doomed.
Now, the second factor is the party used to understand that we had to be different than the national message. To survive in Washington State, we had to be different. They completely abandoned that. They are just a cheering section for Trump. You go to the state party meetings and there’s Trump signs everywhere. They care far more about proving their Trumpiness than they do about actually electing anybody in Washington State. So they just dig the hole deeper.
The guy they just nominated for governor, Loren Culp, was a Trump mini-me — who, again, he lost badly, but he goes, “All fraud and I’m going to sue the state.” And he still has not conceded. So they found themselves in a hole and they just keep digging it deeper and deeper. Because now, I mean, the base of the Republican Party cares far more about the cultural and social and religious issues that drive them than they do about actually winning elections or governing.
Geoff Kabaservice: That’s kind of a fascinating thing to me. I have a particular interest in Washington State’s Republican tradition. I went out to Seattle 10, 12 years ago to talk to Slade Gorton and Dan Evans. Slade has passed, but Dan Evans, God bless him, I think is still alive at age 95.
Chris Vance: He is, yes.
Geoff Kabaservice: He is the guy for whom your public policy school at the University of Washington is named. And he went on to become a three-term governor of Washington in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and then a U.S. Senator in the ‘80s. And Slade was a U.S. Senator in the ‘80s and ‘90s. And you know, what struck me is that during the age of Washington State Republican Party’s greatest success, it was all the things you said. These were people who supported the education, the environment, civil rights… Regional transportation was one of their big issues.
I mean, Evans almost single-handedly drove the John Birch Society — a sort of anticommunist extremist organization — out of the Republican Party, and he welcomed Vietnamese refugees to Washington State in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. And more generally, he embraced independent thinking and cooperation with legislators of both parties. He actually said the failure to pass a state income tax was the biggest disappointment of his career.
And then he mentored a slightly younger group of, again, moderate Republicans like Sam Reed, Bruce Chapman (who was then a moderate Republican), Ralph Munro, Chris Bayley… And then sort of the next generation of Jennifer Dunn and Rod Chandler, who I guess were your mentors as well.
Chris Vance: That’s right.
Geoff Kabaservice: And the Republican Party used to really do especially well in the suburbs, particularly like the Eastside suburbs, the King County suburbs to the east of Seattle. In fact, I looked this up… In 2000, which was only 20 years ago, Democrats only held one of those 12 legislative seats. But by 2014, they had eight. And so I guess the question is what happened in that relatively narrow area of the suburbs that Republicans used to own? Because of course the big story in 2018 was Republicans’ loss of these formerly Republican-supporting, college-educated suburbs. But the Washington State experience suggests this tendency has been going on for longer than that.
Chris Vance: Right. Well, you’ve just laid out my whole political history. Your knowledge of our state is impressive. And I think it is interesting, you know what I mean? Dan Evans was a quintessential Rockefeller Republican, which — I mean, a species that just doesn’t exist anymore. In fact, frankly, I’m a couple steps to the right of Dan, and so was Slade Gorton. He was very, very liberal for a Republican. But there was great electoral success. And it was based in the burgeoning, post-World War II suburbs where Boeing employment just exploded, and then Microsoft came on the scene. And so you have a huge population of college-educated, relatively affluent suburbanites living in a state with a tremendous background in cultural tolerance. I mean, one of the things you must understand about Washington and Oregon is —and as a practicing Catholic, I don’t applaud this —but we have the lowest churchgoing attendance in the nation. Washington State is very secularized.
So I used to talk all the time about moderate, suburban, secular voters who didn’t want their taxes raised. And they believed in the free enterprise system, and they believed in a strong national defense, but they were pro-choice and pro-environment and pro-education and wanted public transportation and better parks. And the party used to understand that. And as the national message moved to the right, it became impossible for suburban Republicans to overcome that. My friend, Steve Litzow, is the best example I can ever think of. Steve Litzow was elected twice, I believe, to the State Senate from a district that includes the southern parts of Bellevue and Mercer Island. I mean, Mercer Island —
Geoff Kabaservice: The 41st district.
Chris Vance: 41st district, wow. Yes, and one of the richest areas in America. Take a look at where Mercer Island is. It sits in the middle of Lake Washington, a five-minute commute to downtown Seattle in the middle of a lake. And these are, I mean, affluent, highly educated folks. And he was not just moderate on social issues. He was actively pro-choice, called Donald Trump a fascist — and he got crushed. He lost badly to a Democrat just because… And I used to hear this all the time. I’d talk to people and: “Chris, you sound great. How can you be a member of that party?” End of the story. So the party now, locally, has changed. They’ve completely lost their direction. But my generation did not. We tried to continue to be Slade Gorton, Dan Evans proteges. But the national message just got so harsh that you couldn’t overcome it.
Geoff Kabaservice: Yeah. You told me you were very interested in an influenced by an article by Yascha Mounk a few years ago called “The Rise of McPolitics.”
Chris Vance: Yes, that was one of those things you read and just — the light just went on. And it was exactly right. It used to be that a Republican in New York… You could have Jacob Javits from New York, who was far, way to the left from Midwestern Republicans and that sort of thing. And there were different types of Republicans and Democrats regionally. Today, just like a Quarter Pounder is the same in North Carolina as it is in Seattle, a Republican in Alabama is the same as a Republican in Washington State. And that pretty much is true for the Democrats. And as everything became nationalized, it became impossible for those of us here in Washington State to craft a separate identity and win.
Now you could have others from… You could have some of my friends who are still Republicans on this podcast, and they would turn and tell you, “Oh, Geoff, we’re going to turn it around. We’re going to turn it around. We’re going to just nominate moderates and it’s all going to be okay.” The problem is that I was trying to do that 25 years ago, and it stopped working. They just… People have got to give it up. It is not coming back anytime in the foreseeable future.
Geoff Kabaservice: I saw that in January of this year, the King County GOP chairman, Joshua Freed, told your moderate friends in the Mainstream Republicans to either disband immediately or to remove the word Republican from their organization.
Chris Vance: Right.
Geoff Kabaservice: It doesn’t sound like a party that’s coming around to moderation or even diversity anytime soon.
Chris Vance: No. Mainstream Republicans of Washington is an organization that’s existed for a long, long time. I should — actually, I should know how long. But I mean, far longer than when I was an active in politics. And it was the people you just mentioned. The Sam Reeds and the Ralph Munros and the Chris Bayleys formed an organization, a faction within the party, to advocate for Dan Evans’ beliefs. These are all Evans’ alumni. And they’ve been around forever and ever and ever. They still meet, they still have a board. But I think they make the great mistake of — they don’t do anything to challenge the party. They just support candidates they like. They don’t oppose Republicans who are going the opposite direction. And they just are too compliant, I think.
And now what happens is if you are labeled as being Mainstream, the base knows what that means here. If you ever went to a Mainstream meeting or donated money to Mainstream, they will use that in the primary against you. And in the old days, the moderates win our primaries. We have always had wide-open primaries, and we used to have what’s called a blanket primary, where everybody would be on the same ballot and anybody can vote for anybody; the top Republican and the top Democrat move on. That made it hard for the right to beat a Slade Gorton. Now we have even more; we have the top two, where it’s everybody on the ballot.
So you would think that moderates would win primaries. That was the idea. But in 2020, the Mainstream, the old establishment — a lot of my friends are actually older than me, which means they’re in their seventies — supported a candidate, Raul Garcia, a doctor from eastern Washington who ran as a Mainstream moderate. He raised a bunch of money — and he got crushed. Mike Vaska, who was the leader of Mainstream, ran for attorney general and got crushed in the primary — simply because the base sniffed out that they were Mainstreamers. So now, even in a bright-blue state like Washington, the base is willing to go down with the ship, supporting hardcore, right-wing MAGA candidates.
Geoff Kabaservice: This points out how much the Republican Party has changed since the days when Ronald Reagan was a leading figure, because of course Ronald Reagan was the one who articulated the so-called 11th Commandment: “Thou shall not speak ill of a fellow Republican.” But it seems like only the moderates are abiding by that. God knows the Trump’s supporters are not.
Chris Vance: Oh, no. That’s right. And we used to actually have… When I was chairman of the state party, there was actually a written rule called the 11th Commandment, and if a candidate violated that we would deny them funding and support. And that was a central tenet of trying to have unity, because back then we pretty much were all unified. There are always a few kooks over in the corner listening to Pat Buchanan, but they did not run the party. The party was run by Reaganites, including Jennifer Dunn, who was state party chairman for 12 years and then a member of Congress for 10 years and a legend in the state. And Slade Gorton and others. And we were all pretty unified. I mean, we were not as liberal as Dan Evans had been; we were Reaganites. But my God, anybody who actually is old enough to remember the truth about Ronald Reagan’s record realizes how moderate he is compared to today’s Republican Party. And now they have much more enthusiasm for attacking a RINO than they do for going after Democrats.
Geoff Kabaservice: So what made you want to throw your hat in the ring in 2015 for the 2016 election against the incumbent U.S. Senator, Patty Murray of the Democrats?
Chris Vance: So I left the state party chairmanship in 2006, because we had just gone through the most divisive, lengthy governor’s race literally in American history, Dino Rossi versus Christine Gregoire, that went through three counts and six months of litigation. And I was in the center of that whole thing. It was the only time my adult life I understood the phrase, “I need a drink.” I mean, it was grueling. And being state party chairman was, frankly, wrecking me financially. It is a full-time job and it doesn’t pay what I need to make. So I had to get out. I had to get out. I went into consulting, but I still wanted to run again, someday perhaps, for office.
A big turning point for me was when Congress was unable to reach a debt reduction agreement in the 2010, 2011, 2012 period, the whole fiscal cliff era. Because I’m a politician, I could see they had set up a process to force themselves to reach an agreement so they will — just like in 1986, when Social Security was on the verge of going bankrupt and the Republicans and Democrats came together and fixed it. So I thought, “Yes, they’re going to do this.” And then they didn’t. They literally… They appointed the Simpson-Bowles Commission and they went over the fiscal… And I said, “Oh my God, something is really wrong here.” And you could just see the gridlock intensifying in Congress and nothing getting done. And I got more active again in politics. I became very active in an organization called Fix the Debt, which is the campaign arm of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, and I started thinking about what to do.
And so in 2015, I was like, “Nobody else is going to run against Patty Murray.” And after eight years of Obama, Obama’s approval ratings then were terrible, Patty Murray’s approval ratings then were terrible. I thought, “This might be a big Republican year. We might have a chance to be competitive and perhaps even win, especially because Republicans are going to nominate Jeb Bush,” who I’d been told forever was just going to be a colossus and we’re all going to love him.” So I got in the race and everything was going fine. We had put together a good team and we were raising money and being taken seriously. And then Trump happened. And we knew by May… I had seen the polls. I was 20 points behind and nobody in Washington State was going to win. So I made a decision early on… I told our state party chair and others and said, “I cannot support this guy. And if he becomes the nominee, I’m going to have to say it.” Because if you’re running for the United States Senate, that’s the only question you’re going to get asked everywhere you go by everybody: “Do you support…?” I can’t lie and you can’t not answer it. People would go, “Oh, no. You can just fudge it.”
So the day after Trump won the Indiana primary, I had a press conference in downtown Seattle. And the media was all over it. They loved it. Here was a Republican going after Trump! And people would go, “Oh, you’re a hero. You’re a hero.” But my campaign just ended at that point. The small-donor donations dried up. The major donors stopped holding events. It got so bad, my son and I could not go to Republican events because we might get attacked, physically attacked. But I figured, “Okay, Trump’s going to lose. And then I can help rebuild the party because I did the right thing and came out against him early. And there’s another Senate race in two years, and we’ll see what happens.” And then he won. And then the minute you knew that was going to happen, I was like, “My God, I’m in the ultimate political wilderness.” That’s how I got there.
Geoff Kabaservice: Why was it that you had opposed Trump relatively early on, like in the spring of 2016?
Chris Vance: I mean, I can talk for two hours about this. But it really comes down to two simple things. Number one, he clearly is a horrible human being who does not have the qualities necessary to hold any public office. He’s not just stupid, he’s evil and venal and corrupt and vicious, and he’s just a terrible person. And second, on top of that… This is really the real reason, because he could be terrible — I’ve known a lot of terrible people in public office — but he is the antithesis of everything I believed in as a Republican. And his movement is the antithesis of everything I believed in as a Republican.
And it is a mistake to think that Trumpism is a cult of personality that is devoid of issues and substance. That’s not true. He’s part of a bigger movement of neo-fascists that is isolationist, protectionist, nativist bordering on racism. And he took the party in completely insane directions, in my opinion. Just one example of many… I’m an ardent free trader. I used to represent the state that was the most trade-dependent state in the nation. Washington State’s economy is dependent on our ability to sell our wheat, and our apples, and our airplanes, and our software to China and elsewhere. And Washington State politicians have always stood up for trade. And Republicans from World War Two on were for free trade.
When I saw Trump go in front of Congress and announce that he had just killed the TPP, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and was going to kill NAFTA, and Republicans who had been fighting for trade six months earlier stood up and cheered — that’s when I knew there was no hope, that the party had completely sold its soul to somebody who was just the complete opposite of Ronald Reagan. I mean, on trade, on immigration, on budgets and spending, on foreign policy, NATO — Trump had nothing in common with the Reaganite party that I had belonged to. I don’t understand how anybody can belong to a political party that you disagree with them on virtually every issue.
Geoff Kabaservice: You told me once a while ago that in 2016, the party’s elites and activists in Washington State really opposed Trump. It was just that the base was in favor of Trump. And so the story on some level was the elites and activists losing control of the party to the base.
Chris Vance: That is absolutely true, and I’m sure it’s true everywhere. I would be driving around the state… When you run for a statewide office, you spend the week on the phone raising money and you spend Saturdays and Sundays driving around — and Washington’s a big place — to Republican meetings, county conventions, Lincoln Day dinners. And you’d walk into these high school gymnasiums and there would be Rubio signs and Cruz signs and even Kasich signs — nothing for Trump. No one there supporting Trump, nobody. He had very few committed delegates at the Washington State Convention. But the base voters, the people that vote but don’t bother coming to the county convention, they were with him from the beginning. He is the candidate they have longed for, for a long time. That’s exactly right: those of us who had run the party for decades lost control of it completely. And the base is now in charge.
Geoff Kabaservice: So clearly those party elites and longtime activists went along with Trump. There were relatively few people like yourself who stood up and said no. Do you think they’ve become converts in the years since?
Chris Vance: I think some have become converts because they’ve convinced themselves, even though if you pin them down and ask about specifics about trade or NATO or the debt, they may not like it. But they’ve convinced themselves that Trump is bringing in new people to the party — this whole ridiculous myth about turning the party into a working-class party. “He’s bringing in new people, so he’s good for our party.” So they’ve talked themselves into it. But most of them, I think, have either left, walked away — I mean, a ton of people who were very active in the party have just vanished, they just walked away — or they’re those who love holding positions so much that they’re willing to just be silent and pretend they support Trump.
I was standing with a member of the Republican National Committee at a Republican dinner, and this gentleman who I’ve known forever said, “I can’t stand this guy. If he wins, I will have to leave the party.” Well, he’s still a Republican and he’s still a member of the Republican National Committee. Because the desire… It’s fun. I’ve done it. It is fun to hold office. It is fun to have a title and get to… RNC meetings are great for parties. That kind of a lifestyle is hard to get rid of.
Also, you’ve got a ton of people who make their living supporting the Republican Party. My best friend — a guy who worked for me at the party, who was the best man at my wedding — he’s still sort of a Republican, because he makes his living doing campaign consulting for Republicans and he’s got a mortgage to pay. So a lot of people are just locked in. I understand it, but I don’t know how they sleep at night.
Geoff Kabaservice: Success for a political party professional used to depend very significantly upon winning. There was a time not that long ago when the Republicans were within two seats of a majority in the Washington House. And for the last two elections, the margin’s been 57-41 Democrats, which is a pretty big margin. One can’t help but notice that Republicans in Washington State have not won a U.S. Senate election since 1994 or a gubernatorial election since 1980.
Chris Vance: Right.
Geoff Kabaservice: So why hasn’t failure educated and changed the party?
Chris Vance: Well, my entire career, whenever we lost, the moderates would, I think, we would look at it reasonably and say, “How do we fix this?” Conservatives always came back with the same answer: “We weren’t conservative enough. We’ve lost because you squishy Mainstream, Slade Gorton, Jennifer Dunn Republicans don’t give the base a good enough choice, a clear enough vision. And we’ve got to move farther to the right.” What’s terrifying now is they believe that view has been validated, because Donald Trump won a presidential election and nearly won another one. They believe that by just doubling and tripling down on getting angry, white, non-college-educated voters (and also evangelical Protestants) that they can win.
And you know what, Geoff, they’re right — nationally. They’re right. Because of the Electoral College and the makeup of the U.S. Senate, that strategy makes sense for Republicans. But not on the West Coast, not in Washington State. So why don’t they change? Because the base won’t let them. The base Republican voters love Trump. They don’t want to hear any criticism of Trump. And now you have an attitude with the Republican leadership in Washington State. They know they can’t win. They just want to hold onto what they’ve got.
My friend J. T. Wilcox, who’s the Republican Leader in the House — terrific guy — J.T. knows better. But he wants to remain the Minority Leader, because he’s got a cool office a few steps from the House floor. It’s fun to be the Minority Leader. So that’s all they really care about is holding onto what they’ve got. Caleb Heimlich, the chair of the Washington State Republican Party… I’ve known Caleb forever. He gets it. But he needs the job. It’s a full-time job and he’s got kids to feed. So they don’t really even care anymore about winning. They’ll tell you they do, but they don’t.
Geoff Kabaservice: There’s that classic quote, of course, from Milton’s Paradise Lost: “Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.”
Chris Vance: Yeah, and there’s a…
Geoff Kabaservice: Of course, it’s Lucifer’s motto, but yeah.
Chris Vance: There’s a quote out here… Not to offend my daughter who went to Washington State, but the University of Washington is the big powerful flagship institution and Washington State, way over in Pullman, is the land-grant university. Their football coach said, “It’s great being coach here. It’s a small town, everybody loves you. It’s like you’re the king of Poop Island.”
Geoff Kabaservice: So tell me… You left the Republican Party in 2017 and became involved with the Centrist Project. How did that come about?
Chris Vance: Yeah. So during 2017, we got a lot of people that just walked away from politics — make money, raise your kids, enjoy your life. I can’t do that. I’m crazy. I am just bitten by the bug. So I started looking for where is the resistance? Somewhere, there is Yavin 4 where the resistance is gathering. Where is that? I came across…
Geoff Kabaservice: To use a Star Wars metaphor.
Chris Vance: Right. Oh, everybody knows that. So I found that there was this thing called the Centrist Project, which was an effort to try and provide infrastructure and professional support to moderate, centrist independents running for office. The idea being that you elect enough of them and they de facto become a new party. The ultimate goal was to create the American Centrist Party. Charles Whelan, who’s a professor at Dartmouth, was the intellectual brains behind this. So I got involved in that. They changed their name to Unite America. I created a Washington State chapter for the 2018 cycle.
We did everything we set out to do. Unite America… I remember being at their big meeting in the summer of 2018. It was in Denver. There were hundreds and hundreds of people there and candidates and consultants. It felt just like being at a Republican National Committee meeting. We had many candidates across the nation, everything from state legislatures to U.S. Senate, governor, all independents. We got them millions of dollars in support — and they all got creamed. There are some reasons for that, I believe. But what that led to then is… Unite America took from that that instead they need to focus on electoral reforms like rank choice voting and that sort of thing — which I’m all in favor of. But I think the future is decided by who elects candidates. So I walked away from Unite America.
I think the whole effort failed because we did not have an identity. I kept urging them, and also the SAM Party, I’ve urged them to adopt a platform. Voters want to know where you stand. Our candidates would go out and say to voters, “Both parties are terrible. The system is broken. Vote for me.” And the voters would say, “Okay, that’s great. Where do you stand on abortion? Are you going to take my gun away? What do you think about climate change?” Shocking, voters actually care about stuff that’s going to affect their lives. They want to know, “What are you going to do to make my kid’s school better? What are you going to do about the things I think are important? I’m a gun owner, I think it’s really important that I get to keep my guns.” So the SAM Party now, and Unite America then, were both deluding themselves by not taking stands on real, actual issues. So I spent the 2018 cycle tilting at that windmill and it just didn’t work.
Geoff Kabaservice: SAM is an acronym for the Serve America Movement?
Chris Vance: Yes. They are a party. They call themselves a party. But if you read what they say, if you look at their website, it’s all about process. It’s about how we’re going to arrive at decisions, not taking a stand. They purposefully don’t take stands on issues or have an ideology. In fact, they are hostile to ideology. I think it’s a pretty old idea in politics that government can be like, I don’t know, some process you learn in a business school: if we all just have the right inputs, we’ll all arrive at the right decision. Politics does not work like that. Politics is about values. Where you stand on abortion has nothing to do with facts or data or metrics. It has to do with what your heart tells you. SAM, in my view, they have no future because of that.
Geoff Kabaservice: A lot of people believe that electoral reform is the necessary prerequisite for the success of any kind of third-party movement. Do you believe that or not?
Chris Vance: I don’t. It would be helpful. It would absolutely be helpful, and I hope it happens. Ranked choice voting, great. Top-two primaries, pretty much anything, end gerrymandering… I’m all for all of it. But the reason I don’t think it’s going to save us by itself is because I live in a state that has every reform you could ever think of other than ranked choice voting, okay? There’s no party registration. Top-two primary. There is an independent commission that does the redistricting. There’s strict campaign finance rules. With Washington State has all-mail voting, everybody votes by mail. Still, you get nothing but very liberal Democrats and very conservative Republicans. Politics is values, it is not process. That’s why I believe we are going to have to have at some point a new political party that believes in the ideas that we all believe in, or that you and I and others believe in.
Geoff Kabaservice: We heard a lot about an opening for a third party when it looked like in 2020 the Republicans were going to renominate Donald Trump and the Democrats were going to nominate Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren or someone else from the left wing of the Democratic Party. But instead the Democrats nominated Joe Biden, with a longtime reputation as a centrist. Howard Schultz did not run as an independent candidate because of that. One hears a lot of argument now from even some former people in high standing in the conservative movement, such as Bill Kristol and Tim Miller, that what the Never Trumpers ought to do is just support the moderate wing of the Democratic Party. Is that argument persuasive to you?
Chris Vance: Almost, but no. But that’s a good point. When the Unite America collapsed, or I lost faith in Unite America, I became way more active then in the Never Trump movement. That’s I think when you and I met. I started to get really active in all these different organizations that had been formed and were just coming together. For instance, there was a group of consultants who are out here in Seattle helping Howard Schultz. I knew some of them, particularly Reed Galen, and I was going to be part of that effort. Then of course it didn’t happen. Well, those consultants sensed that we needed something to do and they started talking to me about some new thing called the Lincoln Project.
That’s how Steve Schmidt and Reed Galen and the rest put together the Lincoln Project. I was one of the original senior advisors. Those guys really didn’t need any advice. They knew what they were doing. But you started to see, at the same time, Bill Kristol and Sarah Longwell created Republican Voters Against Trump. So the whole Never Trump thing really began at the end of 2019, early 2020, in terms of actually creating structures around it. There was a meeting that Evan McMullin called in February of 2020, which met in Washington D.C. right before the pandemic shut everything down, where there were about 50 Never Trump leaders there, including Bill Kristol and Tim Miller and many others. Well, I think maybe you were there and…
Geoff Kabaservice: I was.
Chris Vance: You’re right… And at that meeting, there was a consensus, I think, that we were not going to support Bernie Sanders. In fact, if Bernie Sanders had become the nominee — I think Evan actually held a vote — most of us said, “We’re going to form a new party.” I’m absolutely convinced the people in that room would have taken the steps to create a new political party in 2020 if Bernie Sanders had been the nominee.
But you’re right, Trump became the nominee — I mean, sorry, Biden became the nominee. And so we all went out and worked for Joe Biden. I donated more money to Joe Biden than I’ve ever donated to a candidate. I made 21,000 texts for Joe Biden and I served on one of the Biden policy committees. I had a Biden sign in my front yard. I voted a straight Democrat ticket in the last election. If my choice continues to be forever moderate, One Nation, centrist Democrats versus Trumpy Republicans, well then I’ll just keep working with the Democrats.
But I don’t believe the system is that stable. I mean, Biden was the most moderate person running. I don’t expect the Democrats to stay where they are forever. My Democratic friends get mad at me about that. But I see what’s happening here in Washington State, where there are vicious primary elections where super-progressive Democrats run against relatively moderate Democrat incumbents. Sometimes they win, sometimes they lose, but bit by bit the party is moving way to the left here in Washington State. And I think it has to be their inevitable path. That’s one reason why I think that we’re going to need a third option and better to start now than wait.
Geoff Kabaservice: You had an article in Medium, I think just last month, called “Why Asking Center-Right Former Republicans to Simply Join the Democrats is Not a Realistic Option.”
Chris Vance: Right. That’s part of it, is the Democratic Party is not just going to stay exactly where they are. There are certain Republicans, or certain people, who are just not going to put on that uniform. Everybody was kind of angry when they heard George W. Bush said he wrote in Condoleezza Rice’s name for president. They were like, “Well, why didn’t you just vote for Biden?” Well, I’m sorry. You’re not going to get some people to… They might be willing to leave the Democratic Party, I mean the Republican Party, but they just cannot make the full switch to being a Democrat. It’s not going to happen. And so they’re…
Geoff Kabaservice: Liz Cheney is not going to become a Democrat.
Chris Vance: Liz Cheney is not going to become a Democrat. Jaime Herrera Beutler is not going to become a Democrat — not going to happen. That’s why, again, I think that creating a new option for people is the right way to go.
Geoff Kabaservice: The group that is behind “A Call for American Renewal,” of which you are part, has not come out and said that it is going to form a third party. They are keeping their options open. And it seems to be that there are some people who signed that initial letter who want to reform the Republican Party and other people who believe it’s a lost cause and want to form a third party. Is that a correct reading of the situation?
Chris Vance: Yes. It’s important to understand how we got here. Once the election was over, once the insurrection was put down and Joe Biden was in office, we, the Never Trump movement, started talking among ourselves: “What do we do next?” I guess we could have just all gone away. And I’m glad we didn’t. That was my main goal, just to make sure that this new community stayed together to do something.
Evan McMullin, who is always the convener, it seems, along with Miles Taylor had a big Zoom call summit meeting for over 100 of us in February discussing what to do. And it became apparent the group was pretty evenly split between those who want to create a new party — like me, like Chad Mayes from California, like former ambassador Jim Glassman and others — versus people who… I’m not sure they really want to reform the Republican Party. What they want to do is win Republican primaries.
They believe that we can re-elect Liz Cheney as a Republican, and Jaime Herrera Beutler, and Adam Kinzinger, and we can go beat Marjorie Taylor Greene in a primary. They want to compete within the Republican Party, take it back the old-fashioned way. Frankly, a lot of the former members of Congress feel that way: Barbara Comstock, Charlie Dent…
I think we did a very masterful job of straddling this issue to keep the community together. We’re going to do that. We’re going to try and go re-elect Liz Cheney. But we’re also going to run candidates with a new party label in certain places. This movement is going to be a movement, not a party, but in my opinion — just my opinion — eventually it will evolve and mature into a new political party. That’s what I think. That’s where I think we’re ultimately headed.
Geoff Kabaservice: Do you think the prospects for such a party would be better in particular states than at the national level?
Chris Vance: Yes. Like in Washington State, all you would need to do is… You can literally put anything you want on the ballot. The state asks you, “Which party do you prefer?” And I can say, “I prefer the Beagle Party.” I have a beagle. So all we would have to do in Washington State is form a political action committee and get a bunch of people to all run putting the same thing on the ballot. Boom, you have a party. It’s harder in other places.
But Geoff, everybody just assumes it can’t be done, because it’s never been done. But that is not true. I mean, read more American history. I mean, in the old days, parties were constantly changing, breaking up, shifting. I think we are in a political crisis that is pretty analogous to America in the 1840s and ’50s, where slavery created a crisis that the Whigs couldn’t deal with and the Whigs broke up.
I think Trump and his neo-fascist new movement is maybe not as salient as slavery, but it is a huge issue in this country. And it’s going to eventually reorder our political system. I don’t see how it can fail to do that. And so I think we’re going to end up with, I hope… I’d like to see the Trumpists be a tiny little minority over there with their own party, and eventually the Republican Party come back to being what it was. But the only way we’re going to get there, I think, is by beating them over and over again. And having a new party would help a lot with that.
Geoff Kabaservice: Do you think that if this third party has the effect that you’re hoping for, that the result would be a Republican Party that was no longer attached to Trumpism or that distanced itself from Trumpism? I mean, what kind of optimistic scenarios can you paint me here?
Chris Vance: Well, I have to hope that there are enough Americans who believe in the things that you and I believe in, who want to adhere together into some sort of movement. How this all works out, I don’t know. I mean, if you look at, for instance, the battle for the soul of the Republican Party during Teddy Roosevelt’s era, where he waged a battle against the laissez-faire conservatives versus he and a bunch of others as progressives. Eventually he created a new party that won electoral votes and elected a bunch of people to Congress and elected a bunch of people to the Washington State legislature.
But slowly over time, the Harding/Coolidge/Hoover wing of the party overwhelmed the Progressives and took the Republican Party back. Maybe there’s going to be a war within the conservative movement that’s going to require the creation of a new party. And maybe that new party… How far it goes, maybe it overwhelms the Trump’s supporters… Who ends up holding the name Republican? I don’t know.
But just like Teddy Roosevelt had a choice at the 1912 convention… He could just accept the fact that he had lost control of the Republican Party and walk away, or he could fight. And he chose to walk out of the convention and create a new party and fight. That’s, I think, the moment where we are now. We have lost control of the Republican Party. Maybe someday we’ll get it back. But for right now, we need to create a new identity so we can wage the fight.
Geoff Kabaservice: Thank you so much for talking to me today, Chris. It’s been a pleasure. And thank you all for listening to the Vital Center Podcast. Please subscribe and rate us on your preferred podcasting platform. And if you have any questions, comments, or other responses, please include them along with your rating, or send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks as always to our technical director, Kristie Eshelman, our sound engineer, Ray Ingenieri, and the Niskanen Center in Washington, D.C.