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Friday, December 2, 1994 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Eikenberry Vs. Christian Right -- Gop Chairman Challenged

Just weeks after leading a landslide election for Republicans, state GOP chairman Ken Eikenberry is facing a challenge from Christian conservatives for control of the state Republican Party.

Eikenberry, a former legislator and state attorney general, exuded confidence when he announced his bid earlier this week for a second two-year term as the party's top administrator.

But the leader of the state chapter of the Christian Coalition, which has emerged as a powerful political constituency within the GOP, indicated he'll probably support an alternative.

Ron Taber, a 52-year-old former professor who became independently wealthy investing in real estate and raising cattle, has been campaigning across the state for Eikenberry's $63,000-a-year job. A volunteer for the Coalition, he's expected to announce his candidacy and gain the support of coalition leader Dave Welch and others in the organization next week.

Eikenberry admits that he was somewhat taken aback to learn there would be a challenge to his chairmanship, and dissatisfaction among Christian conservatives.

"In the interest of doing everything possible to keep us unified and pulled together," he called Welch immediately to schedule a meeting.

Indeed, in a year when Republicans were swept into office in bigger numbers than even their most loyal strategists had hoped for, it's unusual to see the state GOP leader face competition. The 78-member state Republican Central Committee will vote on the position Jan. 28.

But Welch, a committee member from Thurston County, says he thinks the state party spends too much on administration and overhead and not enough on developing "the grass roots."

"Right now, the Christians do not control the money, do not control the direction of the party and yet we see a tremendous amount of irresponsibility with the money of the state party," Welch said.

Eikenberry and others, however, argue the party is obviously spending its money well given recent victories. State headquarters has no more employees now - 11 full time - than five years ago. This year, the state party will take in $2.7 million in contributions, breaking a record $2.1 million in 1988.

Spurred that same year by the presidential bid of televangelist Pat Robertson - the founder of the Christian Coalition - social conservatives are now among the most active members of the Republican Party and, in some places, have taken administrative control of county organizations.

The Washington GOP chairmanship has always been held by prominent Republicans who consider themselves middle of the road or stitch together support from various factions, as was Eikenberry's case upon his election two years ago.

There have been rumors that he might make another run for the governor's seat in 1996, but Eikenberry says he's happy where he is: "Maybe I've finally found a job I'm good at."

As lead fund-raiser and party spokesman, he took the helm just after a fractious convention in Yakima in which conservatives and moderates fought bitterly over social issues.

Now Eikenberry takes credit for this year's GOP sweep, which included turning an 8-1 Democratic majority in the U.S. House delegation into a 7-2 Republican one, regaining control of the state House of Representatives and coming just one seat shy of taking the state Senate.

Welch gives a less generous assessment: "I would say he deserves some credit. How much is a point of discussion."

In any case, Republican successes seem to be giving Christian activists reason to flex their muscles.

"To the extent that we can get Christians activated, it will increase the vote for the Republican Party," Taber said.

A man known for flamboyance and a quick tongue, he has political interests rooted in the progressive wing of the GOP.

After a two-year stint teaching social intellectual history at Purdue University, he served under Gov. Dan Evans as director of the state Youth Commission in 1970-1971.

Recently, Taber said, religion has become more central in his life. He left a Presbyterian seminary in Florida two days after the Sept. 20 primary to renew his activism in Washington politics.

He immediately volunteered with the state Christian Coalition, driving his car to churches across the state to distribute voter guides.

Since then, he's been crisscrossing county lines with calling cards that say "leadership for the grassroots," and doing opposition research on Eikenberry.

Sam Reed, a well-known progressive in the GOP and a longtime friend of Taber, doubts the contest between Taber and Eikenberry will necessarily turn on ideological arguments and litmus tests. He says Taber may strike a chord by stressing his desire to give Republicans more local control.

Other moderates, however, are staying firmly behind Eikenberry.

Mark Gardner, president of the Mainstream Republicans of Washington, says he thinks the Christian Coalition is trying to gain control of the party's money and influence. He contends that winning the chairmanship could provide a new source of revenue for the political base of social conservatives.

"We've allowed the party to be stolen from us because we haven't had a burning cause," said Gardner, who is laying the groundwork for expansion of his group to counteract Christian activism.

"Well, now we have a burning cause. If we expect good governance, then we'll have to work for it."

Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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