The Spokane County Republican Party is backing the challenger of a Republican incumbent for county prosecutor this year. The Republicans of Spokane County, however, endorsed both the GOP incumbent and a separate challenger in that same race in the upcoming primary.
This confusing alignment of support in the prosecutor’s race is just one example of a schism within the local GOP that in some respects parallels splits all over the country. Some see it as a rift between the Ron Paul supporters and the John McCain supporters in the 2008 presidential race. Or a split between the tea party and the mainstream, or between upstart libertarians and old-guard establishment.
It’s not a split between liberals and conservatives, or even moderates and conservatives. Almost everyone involved is a self-described conservative, although some question the conservative credentials of the other side. Some say it’s just part of the pendulum swinging in the Republican Party for decades.
“In a sense it goes back to Goldwater versus Rockefeller in 1964,” said Rob Chase, a district leader for the county GOP in the Spokane Valley’s 4th Legislative District.
Few active party members in Spokane can remember that far back, but some can remember the split in 1976 between Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford or the mid-1980s battles between mainstream Republicans backing George H.W. Bush and Christian conservatives who united behind Pat Robertson’s unsuccessful presidential bid. The wedge for most current party members, however, was the 2008 presidential campaign.
Those who supported Paul in 2008 – who trend toward libertarian philosophies of less government interference and who have some of the strongest ties to the tea party movement – currently control the county party. Some who supported McCain for the nomination – and often have a longer history with the party structure, candidates or officeholders – lost a bid to take control of the county party and formed a separate club, which they named Republicans of Spokane County.
Each side accuses the other of some act of disloyalty to the greater good. Mainstream Republicans say the upstart Paul supporters didn’t work hard enough for McCain. Not true, says Curt Fackler, former chairman of the county GOP and current state committeeman: “All the Republican Party people I know voted for McCain.”
But the Paul supporters have some anger over treatment at the state and national conventions. Mainstream Republicans got most of the state’s delegates to the national convention, even though Paul did well in the precinct caucuses; at the national convention, Paul, a Republican congressman from Texas who’d lasted longer than any other challenger to McCain, was denied a chance to speak to the delegates, while independent Sen. Joe Lieberman, a McCain supporter, got a prime-time address.
While the two sides may have been roughly equal in numbers that summer, the Paul supporters mobilized more supporters and captured the top spots when the party elected leaders the following winter. Mainstreamers eventually formed the Republicans of Spokane County, which holds candidate forums and endorses candidates that two-thirds of its members support.
“They kept stressing unity after the McCain-Ron Paul fight. Instead of practicing what they preach, they went out and formed another group,” Chase said.
Beva Miles, chairwoman of the Republicans of Spokane County, said some club members felt pushed out. County party leaders tried to eliminate dissent by dropping people who didn’t agree with them from the mailing lists. Not true, said Fackler; the party tries to keep the list updated, and while spam filters sometimes trap e-mails, “everything we do is on our website.”
Cindy Zapotocky, county party chairwoman, has asked the Republicans of Spokane County to put “club” in its name. The group has refused, although its website now mentions it’s a club.
“I think it’s confusing to people,” Zapotocky said.
County Commissioner Todd Mielke said the club formed because of concerns that the county party wasn’t inclusive enough, and thinks the new party platform is too long, too specific and too far away from broad philosophy.
That platform, with more than 100 statements, calls for abolishing no-fault divorce, withdrawing the United States from the United Nations, privatizing Social Security, eliminating the U.S. Department of Education, repealing the Endangered Species Act, increasing drilling for oil on land and offshore, and declaring English as the official language.
Zapotocky, who disputes suggestions the party isn’t inclusive, said the platform isn’t a litmus test: “I don’t expect people to agree to every word of it. It’s a way to define terms.”
Labeling has become a problem in a group where most call themselves conservative. Mielke, who said he was labeled “an ultra-right-wing conservative” when he was in the Legislature in the 1990s, considers himself a pragmatic Republican. But he said Zapotocky and other party members have called him a RINO, or Republican in Name Only.
Zapotocky said she doesn’t recall that, and doesn’t question his party leanings: “He calls himself a Republican. I guess he’s a Republican.”
Endorsements have been one of the major bones of contention between the two groups. This year, the party endorsed Dave Stevens, its vice chairman, for the prosecutor spot held by three-term Republican Steve Tucker.
Fackler agreed that it is rare to endorse a challenger over an incumbent Republican, although the party did call for the recall of Spokane Mayor Jim West, a longtime GOP officeholder, in 2005.
“They hold a lot more reverence for incumbents than we do,” Fackler said of Republicans of Spokane County.
“I think you’ve got to give incumbents the benefit of the doubt,” said Mike DeVleming, a former Valley city councilman and the endorsement chair for Republicans of Spokane County. But the club bases its endorsements on candidates’ performance at a forum and a two-thirds vote of the members. Miles said the group couldn’t muster that supermajority for any one prosecutor candidate, but reached it when Tucker and challenger Chris Bugbee were considered together.
So far the groups have also split on the two Republicans seeking to knock off Democratic State Rep. John Driscoll. The party endorsed John Ahern; the club backed Shelly O’Quinn. Neither has endorsed in the marquee race this year, the fight to challenge U.S. Sen. Patty Murray.
One possible benefit of the intraparty fight, both sides say, is an abundance of candidates for the job of precinct committee officer, a position that elects the party officers every two years. Often those unpaid and generally thankless spots go begging for volunteers. Both sides recruited heavily – party officials turned in 59 names in one day during filing week and club members turned in 58 the next day – and many precincts have two Republican candidates. A few even have three. Future control of the party is at stake.
“The battle’s still on. At least they’re motivated to get involved,” Chase said.