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Thursday, January 2, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnist

Washington's GOP ready to rumble

Special to The Times

Since the November election, many local pundits have been busily trying to set in stone a new piece of conventional wisdom: that in contrast to the Republican sweep nationwide, the GOP in Washington state missed the boat.

As much as the politicos and talking heads may hate to see their gloom-and-doom scenario challenged, I would argue that although we Republicans aren't 100-percent happy with all the election results, the situation is actually much better than it's being portrayed.

The post-election lay of the land is this: Republicans lost two seats in the state House and are in a 46-52 minority. In the state Senate, however, the GOP came from behind to capture a 25-24 majority. On the county-government level, we won a net of 13 new seats. In congressional races, none of our challengers won their races against the sitting Democrats, but our Republican incumbents held their positions in three of Washington's nine congressional districts.

Once you start looking at the results more closely, it's hard not to see the silver linings, even in the areas where we fell short. For instance, research from the Voter News Service shows that the state GOP actually had its best results in turning out self-identified Republican voters since 1994. For the first time since '94, we equaled the Democrats in voter turnout. In '96, '98 and 2000, Republicans had steadily lost ground in getting out the Republican vote. But in 2002, the GOP reversed the trend and erased the massive 8-percent advantage Democrats had over us back in the 2000 election.

That's not all: Statewide, Republicans actually captured more total votes for state House candidates than the Democrats. GOP candidates received 50 percent of the total vote, up from 46 percent just two years ago. Democrats received 49 percent in 2002, with other parties accounting for the rest. A swing of only 1,600 voters among four legislative districts would have meant a Republican House majority. The fact that the races were very close puts us in an excellent position to win those seats in 2004.

That's not an excuse for not winning more House races, especially the 41st and 48th District seats on the Eastside. This election showed once again that the Puget Sound "crescent" of suburbs is growing increasingly competitive. We cannot take the suburbs for granted or assume that a majority of suburban voters will automatically prefer Republican candidates over Democrats. We must continue to recruit candidates who are able to communicate effectively with suburban voters about everyday concerns and can mount aggressive, grass-roots-based campaigns.

In the campaigns for state Senate, on the other hand, Republicans showed the strength of our get-out-the-vote drive. Of the seven competitive Senate races, the GOP won six. Winning the majority in one chamber of the state Legislature — while the House and governor's office are still controlled by the Democrats — is no small feat. It means Republicans will be able to help set the agenda for the upcoming legislative session.

On the county-government level, this year Republicans added to our majority of partisan offices. With our net gain of 13 seats, we now hold 202 partisan county offices compared to the Democrats' 157 (in 2001, the GOP-Democrat ratio was 189-171).

Clearly, these facts contradict the conventional wisdom that the Republican Party in Washington was somehow dealt a crippling blow in 2002. On the contrary, while we're not where we'd like to be (i.e., with a majority in the state Legislature and more congressional seats), we made gains this year and have laid the groundwork to perform well in 2004.

For those who claim that Washington was alone in not riding the 2002 Republican wave, a reality check: the GOP also experienced losses in Kansas, Oklahoma, Wyoming, Arizona, Michigan, Pennsylvania and other states. Even in states like Vermont and New York, where Republicans won governor's races, the GOP lost seats in those state Legislatures, in some cases losing the majority altogether.

It's also worth remembering that this year we didn't have big, attention-grabbing statewide races for governor and senator, so the "Bush effect" really wasn't felt here. In 2004 the situation will be much different. We'll not only have strong Republican challengers in the gubernatorial and senatorial races, but I have been assured by the national Republican Party that Washington will be among President Bush's priorities for his re-election campaign.

We have made great strides since our setbacks in the late '90s and 2000, and I believe we're well on our way to turning the tide. We are energized and ready to compete with the Democrats for the hearts and minds of Washington voters.

Chris Vance is chairman of the Washington State Republican Party. He is being challenged for the state post by GOP activist Rose Strong and former state Rep. Phil Fortunato, who is from South King County's 47th District.

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