A battle for control of the Spokane County Republican Party is being waged at the neighborhood level in the August primary.
Competing factions of conservative Republicans are vying for the most basic, and often overlooked, positions elected in either party: precinct committee officers. They’re jobs with no pay, limited authority and the potential for significant demands on the office holder’s time.
But they form the legally sanctioned backbone of each party’s county organization, and whoever controls the greatest number of neighborhood precincts controls their political party’s countywide organization.
In theory, Democrats and Republicans should each elect a PCO for each of Spokane County’s 314 precincts every two years, although in many years the parties often go begging for willing candidates, and when they find one, there’s no contest for the job.
Not this year.
In 105 precincts, about a third of the county’s total, there will be contested elections. Almost all – 101 races – will be for Republican positions. In a South Hill precinct near Roosevelt Elementary School, both parties have contested PCO races, with two Democrats and three Republicans.
By comparison, less than a tenth of the precincts in King County have contested PCO races in the Aug. 7 election.
It’s a sign of the ongoing struggle between two factions of the local GOP, both of which describe themselves as conservatives and the other side as something else. Forty of the Republican PCO races are in the Spokane Valley’s 4th Legislative District, arguably the county’s most Republican and most conservative.
“It boils back down to Ron Paul and Mitt Romney,” said Spokane County Treasurer Rob Chase, a longtime Paul supporter and leader of that faction’s effort to recruit PCOs. “It’s the conservatives and the moderates in the party looking for control.”
Former Spokane Valley Mayor Diana Wilhite prefers to call it a coalition of Romney supporters with those of Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich against the Paul supporters. That coalition contains the true conservatives, she said, while many in the Paul group are libertarians.
“They call us RINOs (Republicans in Name Only) or moderates,” she said, but some Paul supporters believe in legalizing marijuana or allowing same-sex marriage and “are not totally conservative themselves.”
The two factions have been vying for control since 2008, when Paul supporters surprised the GOP establishment at precinct caucuses and took over platform discussions at the county convention, even though Sen. John McCain was the party’s nominee by the time that convention took place. This year’s spirited presidential campaign brought record numbers to the 2012 precinct caucuses for Romney, Paul, Santorum and Gingrich.
“There were a lot of new people we’d never seen before. After their candidates dropped out, we encouraged them to stay involved,” Wilhite said.
This year, what some call the Unity Slate – and Chase calls “everybody but Ron Paul” – had the upper hand at the Spokane County convention, although the delegates and alternates being sent to next week’s GOP state convention in Tacoma are a mix of the two factions.
But control of the local party for the next two years will be decided by PCOs elected in the Aug. 7 primary, and both factions recruited people new to the process to consider running for their local slot.
Along with electing party leaders every two years, PCOs are supposed to contact voters in their precinct. They regularly get tapped as campaign volunteers and for contributions to candidates of all levels, and are supposed to run their precinct’s caucus in two years.
“The job is what you make it,” Chase said. “Once they get into it, you rarely have a bad experience.”
A change in state law puts PCO races on the primary ballot, but only if there are two or more candidates from the same party in that precinct. If only one candidate from a party filed for the job, he or she is automatically elected. No write-ins are allowed, and an open position can be filled by party leaders based on each party’s rules.
For all other races on the Aug. 7 ballot, candidates say they “prefer” a party and a voter can choose any candidate in any race. A PCO race, which is the last one on the ballot in a precinct that has a contest, is a partisan election, and a line above the names will say that a person voting in this race considers himself or herself a member of that party.
But that doesn’t limit the voter’s selection to only candidates stating that party preference on the rest of the ballot, Spokane County Elections Manager Mike McLaughlin said.