The internal party changes that began in January with the narrow election victory of Diane Tebelius as state GOP chair became evident to all last month, when the Washington State Republican Party ratified a platform that included a call to abolish the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Tebelius is letting the party's grass roots speak their mind. If that means the state platform demands an end to U.S. citizenship for children born to foreign parents on American soil, so be it. "We have a great platform," says Tebelius.
Will the militancy of the GOP grass roots alienate the moderate Washington electorate? Similarly sharp planks haven't hurt the Washington State Democratic Party. For years, the Democratic grass roots have been expressing antiwar, drug-legalization, pro-gay-marriage sentiments freely in platforms, at state conventions, and on the party Web site, and Democratic candidates have dominated state and federal races decisively—albeit with candidates who are often more moderate than the party's base.
Tebelius, 57, a former federal prosecutor, says she has a team leadership style. "We are part of a team that consists of the grass roots, elected officials, and contributors," she says. "We are the center of a wheel. We are supposed to grease the wheel and make it run smoothly. You have to listen to everybody."
Former party chair Chris Vance had what he calls an "activist" leadership style. His critics say he was a dictator. Vance had a very specific goal for the Republican Party: to put a friendly, suburban face on conservatism. After his election as party chair, he convened the Crescent Conference in 2002 that articulated the need for the GOP to find successful strategies in the suburbs of the Puget Sound "crescent." For Vance, that meant recruiting people like 2004 gubernatorial candidate Dino Rossi, a slick salesman with a very conservative voting record who soft-pedaled his ideology in favor of vague generalities about making government run more like a business. It was a very successful strategy that almost won the governor's mansion.
Vance wasn't shy about urging the rest of the state GOP to adopt his approach. "I tried to enforce message discipline," says Vance. He also kept tight control over the party platform and fought hard to avoid divisive primaries.
Tebelius believes that tough primary fights make candidates stronger. "I believe in contested primaries. They make the winner a better candidate," she says. Tebelius uses three examples from 2004 to illustrate her point: her own bare-knuckles battle against U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Auburn, for the GOP nomination in the Eastside's 8th Congressional District, the tough fight that state Attorney General Rob McKenna faced against Mike Vaska, and the multiple primary opponents bested by U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris, R-Spokane, in Eastern Washington's 5th District. "They were all better candidates after the contested primaries," says Tebelius.
Tebelius also believes that the grassroots expression of their militancy is inevitable in things like platforms. "No one manages the grass roots." Tebelius says. "If anyone thinks they do, they are dreaming. No one can manage the floor of a convention. It's the people at the convention who have the final say on the platform." Tebelius says she wasn't even in the room when the party's platform on immigration was amended to deny automatic citizenship to the children of foreigners.
Vance took a very different approach. He built consensus that platforms should be short statements of principles. He and his staff wrote the first draft of the party platform. He actually attended the meetings of the party's platform committee and argued strongly against any elements that he felt were too controversial. "I used all the authority I had," Vance says. "It was controversial, and some people didn't like it." Ultimately, Vance prevailed by getting the support of the majority of the platform committee and the state delegates. "We didn't pass platforms that candidates had to walk away from," says Vance.
Soon after the passage of this year's platform, U.S. Senate hopeful Mike McGavick, the GOP's most important 2006 candidate, declared he didn't agree with its immigration plank. So did the GOP's highest elected state official, Attorney General McKenna.
State Rep. Toby Nixon, R-Kirkland, who agrees with the platform on immigration, says the GOP grass roots are just getting started. "There continues to be a very conservative wing of the party that would go a lot further," Nixon says. "It hasn't played itself out yet." He asks, "How far will the pendulum swing before people think it's swung too far and has to come back?"
This year, the state GOP faces an electorate that is fed up with a Republican president and Congress. If the voters punish Republicans at the ballot box, Tebelius, fairly or unfairly, will get a lot of the blame. Come January, faced with failure, the grass roots might be seeking a new direction for their party.