How Republicans need to change in Washington state

Defeats like those suffered by many of my Republican colleagues and me last November are cause for sober reflection, as opposed to finger pointing. Rather than focus on blaming others for our defeats, party leaders and activists should instead consider how changing demographics, rapid technological change and relatively swift shifts in public attitudes have contributed to the Democrats’ recent successes in our state and nationally.

The challenge and opportunity for Republicans is in offering bold solutions that encourage more voters to support GOP candidates.

Fortunately, I’ve seen that constructive approach offered in recent weeks by leaders such as Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va., and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, among others. All have championed forward-looking policies that will benefit all Americans, not just those in battleground states or among narrow constituencies.

I heard the same approach last month when I hosted a roundtable with Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus and two dozen of our state’s most active campaigners. I came out of that meeting impressed that Northwest Republicans, despite our losses, remain motivated to build the party and offer real alternatives to Olympia’s stale political culture.

If we want to be trusted to improve our public schools, grow our economy and govern more effectively, then as Northwest Republicans we must build stronger governing coalitions — and we need to welcome new people inside our party’s tent to do so. As Priebus said, we will win through addition and multiplication in our ranks, not through subtraction and division.

He put his money where his mouth was with the release two weeks ago of a frank and far-reaching report, the Growth and Opportunity Project post-mortem on the 2012 elections.

This 100-page document did not gloss over the party’s shortcomings from the last election, but instead assessed our faults and proposed an extensive array of improvements we need to make to see future success. Among the report recommendations was a $10 million initial investment to improve Republican outreach in minority communities.

I was particularly heartened to see Priebus make that commitment, as that type of immediate effort to expand the party’s reach beyond our current supporters was a highlight of our meeting in Seattle. And it was a pressing need that I saw throughout my own campaign last year.

In the ethnic and minority communities I visited while running for governor, I invariably received a warm welcome and much encouragement.

In the Sikh temples, at Latino and Asian-American community events, in meetings with African-American education reformers, and on the Indian reservations I revisited during my campaign — in all these communities and places, people expressed their appreciation for my presence. But they also asked, “Where are the other Republicans”?

They would go on to say, we have seen you many times outside of campaign season, but often our elected officials (in both parties) wait until election year to come around. That must change. In the deepest sense, Republicans “must be present to win,” as in winning over more support in these communities.

Our candidates must improve their connection to our state’s many diverse communities. Before we can win their votes, we have to spend time in their communities, and not just in the few months before Election Day, to learn how their personal priorities align with Republican principles.

We also need to hit reset on our relationship with younger voters, showing them that the GOP’s economic policies will help them succeed, and pointing out that ours is the party that consistently supports higher education. We can win these debates, noting the state Democrats’ dismal record of slashing state university funding and, nationally, how the Obama administration’s policies are holding back their generation by stubbornly refusing to tackle endless trillion-dollar federal deficits.

Expanding the party through these efforts does not mean sacrificing our core principles in order to win. A key lesson in politics is to not learn the wrong lessons from setbacks, as both success and defeat often come in cycles.

Republicans today are in a position similar to where the Democratic Party found itself in the mid-1980s, when our party had won the popular vote in five of six presidential races from 1968 to 1988. Democrats focused on their weaknesses in national security and economic policies, and convinced their special-interest support groups to move from infighting to unity, enabling their string of five presidential popular vote wins in the past six races.

Fortunately, we are starting from a competitive position in Washington state. In the governor’s race, I won majorities in five of 10 congressional districts, in 31 of the state’s 39 counties and collectively in the 47 legislative districts that were not located entirely within Seattle city limits. To put it in perspective, had fewer than 48,000 of the more than 3 million voters who cast ballots chosen differently, this would be a very different guest column.

But when confronting a close defeat it is imperative to focus on the strategies and tactics that separated winning from losing. So yes, we must improve our party’s technological efforts and build more robust and personal get-out-the-vote programs.

More important, we have to move all of these efforts into new neighborhoods, among new voters and in new conversations centered on bold solutions. And we have to do this year-round, not just in the run-up to Election Day.

(This op-ed was originally published in the Seattle Times on March 30, 2013.

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Rob McKenna
Rob served two terms as Washington’s Attorney General, from 2005 to 2013. He successfully argued three cases before the U.S. Supreme Court and negotiated three of the largest consumer financial protection settlements in national history, all involving mortgage lending and servicing. He is a recognized leader in the development of consumer protections on the internet, in data protection and privacy regulation.