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Endorsements and discord: WA GOP wraps up Spokane convention

Most delegates at the Washington State Republican Party Convention rose and cheered as Semi Bird took the stage. Bird was later endorsed for governor.
Jerry Cornfield/Washington State Standard
Most delegates at the Washington State Republican Party Convention rose and cheered as Semi Bird took the stage. Bird was later endorsed for governor.

Heading into the thick of the 2024 election cycle, Semi Bird fired up the Republican crowd but moderates have doubts he and other candidates the party is backing can win.

SPOKANE – Semi Bird got his moment. Jaime Herrera Beutler got rebuffed. Dan Newhouse continues to pay a price for his vote to impeach the former president.

And leaders of the Washington State Republican Party will leave Spokane Saturday evening with an endorsed slate of candidates but also continued discord in their ranks.

“This is a family feud. We have to sit around here and figure out how the family comes back together,” said Mathew Patrick Thomas, chair of the King County Republican Party.

Tensions center on whether delegates are backing candidates who might check certain boxes – supporting Donald Trump, eschewing the establishment, committing to more conservative positions – at the expense of electability in a state that’s tilted increasingly Democratic.

Republicans hold zero statewide offices in Washington, are minorities in both chambers of the Legislature, and control just two of the state’s 10 U.S. House seats.

Bird, as expected, got the official party endorsement for governor, garnering 72% of votes cast by the roughly 1,800 delegates. He’s a military veteran and former Richland School Board member, recalled after his opposition to state masking policies during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dave Reichert, the other GOP candidate, who served 14 years in Congress before not seeking reelection in 2018, withdrew his name from consideration Friday after blasting his party’s endorsement process as a “chaotic mess.”

Meanwhile, Herrera Beutler and Newhouse failed to get endorsements, a sign there’s no forgiving or forgetting their votes to impeach Donald Trump in 2021.

Sue Kuehl Pederson garnered 86% to beat out Herrera Beutler for state commissioner of public lands.

“We’re confident that the voters of Washington will see this election very differently from the voters of that particular room in Spokane,” said Pam Peiper, Herrera Beutler’s campaign manager.

Jerrod Sessler handily won the endorsement over Newhouse in their battle for the 4th Congressional District seat. Newhouse has held the seat for nearly a decade. Notably, Sessler received a strong endorsement from Trump ahead of the convention.

Any attempt for rapprochement between the party’s newer guard – whose choices swept the endorsements – and the more moderate and traditional flank of the state GOP will have to wait until the August primary, delegates said.

That will be a better gauge of where Republican voters are at.

“There’s the convention and there’s the election,” Thomas said. “We’ll find out at the ballot box if they’re the real true voice of the party or if they are just a loud voice.”

Those loud voices backed Bird in his battle against Reichert to be the GOP torchbearer in the governor’s race. On Saturday, several people expressed concern that if Bird loses in August his most ardent supporters will sit out the governor’s election in November.

“I know a lot of people voting for Bird who say they are not going to vote for Reichert,” said Randy Hayden of Snohomish County, a delegate who has held party leadership roles at the county and state levels. “I do not envy Jim Walsh.”

Walsh acknowledged the concern Saturday.

“I’ve got to figure out a way that people don’t go home, that people still want to vote,” he said.

‘I did sin’

The convention’s final day got off to a rousing start Saturday with Bird delivering a speech to delegates.

It occurred one day later than planned because of a dust-up Friday in which his supporters fended off an attempt to disqualify him from the party’s backing. Reichert, who cited the decision to restore Bird’s eligibility as he walked away from the party endorsement process, never showed up at the convention.

“This is the sound of self-governance coming alive,” Bird proclaimed to a mostly cheering crowd.

He addressed the elephant in the room first.

“I did sin,” he said of his misdemeanor conviction in 1993 for seeking to obtain $1,800 in credit by forging his dad’s name on a bank application. “I take full accountability.

“If you want me to apologize for making mistakes, I will apologize. I will not live in shame for the rest of my life for the sins of my past,” he said, eliciting loud applause.

He pivoted into a mostly stump speech. Describing himself as a “constitutional conservative,” he called for strengthening parents’ role in public schools, bolstering public safety, auditing government agencies, and ending Washington’s self-proclaimed status as a sanctuary state for undocumented immigrants.

He also voiced support for three initiatives on the November ballot. These seek to repeal the state’s Climate Commitment Act and capital gains tax, and would likely undermine funding for the state’s new long-term care support services benefit

Later in the day, Hayden, an early backer of Bird’s, said he’d soured on his candidacy as issues from the candidate’s past have emerged, including the 1993 charge. There’s too much baggage for independent voters who will be the deciders in a close race in November, Hayden said.

“Would Bird make a good governor? I think he would,” Hayden said. “Could Bird win? Probably not.”

Making choices

This year’s convention took place ahead of May candidate filing to prevent primary races where Republicans split the vote in a way that leaves them off the November ballot. This happened in the 2022 secretary of state’s race when an independent slipped past three GOP contenders.

Those running this year were asked to sign a pledge to end their campaigns and unite behind whoever gets endorsed this week. But Reichert and Herrera Beutler are among those who did not sign.

On Saturday, delegates endorsed Raul Garcia for the U.S. Senate – a longshot bid against Democratic incumbent Maria Cantwell who’s held the seat since 2001, and candidates for six statewide offices, including governor and commissioner of public lands.

The biggest surprise might have been Dale Whitaker getting endorsed for secretary of state ahead of state Sen. Phil Fortunato and Bob Hagglund, who ran for the office in 2022. Fortunato and Hagglund both said they would end their campaigns and back Whitaker.

David Olson got the endorsement for superintendent of public instruction in a four-person contest.

Chad Magendanz, a former state lawmaker and one of the other three, signed the pledge and lauded the goal of building unity with the early endorsement process. He ended his campaign Saturday.

“I’m disappointed,” Magendanz said. “I was hoping the delegates would have a longer view and focus on electability versus a purity test.”

He had reported raising nearly $28,000, a sum that will go into his surplus account to use in a future campaign or to help candidates in this election cycle. Maybe Olson.

“I will help him out in ways that I can,” he said.

Pete Serrano received the near unanimous backing for attorney general as did Matt Hawkins for auditor. They were the only ones seeking party support for those offices.

Decisions for congressional candidates occurred Friday and were made by caucuses of delegates in each of the 10 congressional districts.

Ferry County Commissioner Brian Dansel, who served in the Trump administration, received the endorsement in the 5th Congressional District. That’s where a host of Republicans – including state Rep. Jacquelin Maycumber and Spokane County Treasurer Michael Baumgartner – are competing to succeed the retiring Republican Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers.

In southwest Washington’s 3rd Congressional District, Joe Kent snagged an early endorsement from the party’s state committee last August making this week’s affirmation at the convention a formality.

Republicans lost the seat in 2022 when Kent, a Trump acolyte, ousted Herrera Beutler, the incumbent, in the primary then lost to Democrat Marie Gluesenkamp Perez in November.

Leslie Lewallen, a Republican, is also vying for the seat. But she did not attend the convention and, in an op-ed for The Columbian, blasted the whittling down process as a “heavy-handed tactic” that risks fracturing the party and losing winnable seats for Republicans.

“Expecting candidates and voters to fall in line with the endorsements made by a self-selected sampling of party representatives is undemocratic and antithetical to the robust electoral process envisioned by our Founding Fathers,” she wrote.

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