Nearly 22 years ago, George Nethercutt became a national Republican icon, the “giant slayer” who beat a sitting speaker of the House to win Eastern Washington’s congressional seat. After leaving Congress, he established a foundation dedicated to improving civic involvement among the nation’s youth.
Since he was old enough to vote, he has never not voted for president, he says. But if his party’s nominee is Donald Trump, and the Democrats’ is Hillary Clinton, this year he’ll leave that race unmarked. Nethercutt views it as a choice between one candidate who’s too crude to be president and one who’s too dishonest.
“After watching (Thursday) night’s debate, it troubles me as a proud Republican and a citizen,” he said. “I’ll abstain.”
Originally a supporter of Jeb Bush, Nethercutt said he might join a movement for Ohio Gov. John Kasich, with whom he served in the House. “Everybody’s frustrated with government. I understand that. But with Trump as president, it could get worse,” he said.
Nethercutt’s reaction to the growing prospect of Trump becoming the GOP nominee is at one end of the spectrum for current and former Republican officials. At the other end is state Sen. Brian Dansel, R-Republic, who likes the billionaire businessman’s brash style, although he acknowledged he’s not sure they agree on many policy issues.
“I like the message of being anti-establishment and against political correctness,” said Dansel, who ran an anti-establishment campaign to win his legislative seat against an appointed incumbent. “He’s bringing in people not involved in politics.”
Unlike Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, Trump does not have a campaign organization in Washington, state party officials said. His Washington supporters do have a Facebook page where they post news stories and comments about the candidate.
Spokane County Treasurer Rob Chase said Trump’s support among grass-roots Republicans in the 10 statewide primaries or caucuses he’d won before Saturday should not be ignored.
“Ideally, the party should facilitate what the grass roots desires,” Chase said. “I think the grass roots are saying, they want Trump. They shouldn’t fight that. They should embrace it.”
Chase said he supports Trump because of the real estate mogul’s reputation as a likable boss and his opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an Obama administration trade agreement that Chase repeatedly has denounced.
“I think we’re at a very critical time in our country’s history, maybe the most critical time since the Civil War,” Chase said.
Some Republicans are waiting to take a position on Trump.
Republicans who are likely to be running for key statewide offices have refused to say whether they will support Trump if he’s at the top of the November ballot. Chris Vance, a former state party chairman who is running for U.S. Senate, told the Seattle Times he’d answer the question if Trump becomes the nominee. Bill Bryant, a Seattle port commissioner running for governor, said he doesn’t “cross hypothetical bridges” and also would decide when it happens.
Other Republican elected officials are more reluctant supporters.
“I plan on supporting the Republican nominee,” said state Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley. “He’s not my first choice.”
Senate Majority Leader Mark Schoesler said his personal favorite in the current field is Ohio Gov. John Kasich.
“He’s got the best resume,” the Ritzville Republican said.
But if Trump gets the nomination in July, he’ll get Schoesler’s vote in November because “I’m not voting for Hillary.”
State Rep. Shelly Short, R-Addy, said her first choice would be Rubio, as someone with energy, enthusiasm and knowledge of Washington. She doesn’t like Trump’s stand on eminent domain, but if he’s the nominee “I’m going to support anybody who’s not Hillary.”
Elected Republican officials in Spokane also have mixed feelings about Trump and antipathy toward Democratic front-runner Clinton. County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich said Trump shouldn’t be blamed for splitting the Republican Party because “it’s been split for years.”
Knezovich said he doesn’t trust Clinton and has strong misgivings about a Trump endorsement by former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke, who said on a radio show in February he supported the GOP front-runner’s campaign. The candidate was criticized for his slow response to repudiate Duke and the KKK.
Although he will support a Republican ticket, Knezovich is concerned about the lack of quality candidates the nomination process has produced: “I look at it, and I say, ‘Is this the best we can field?’ It kind of speaks to the level of people that are willing to run for office anymore.”
Spokane County Commissioner Al French originally supported Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, whom he knows personally, and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker for president. Daniels never officially entered the race and Walker dropped out in September. French is undecided about his remaining Republican candidates: “If I had my choice, I’d figure out how to pump life back into (Ronald) Reagan and bring him back.”
U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, who replaced Nethercutt in Congress and is arguably Eastern Washington’s highest elected Republican official as chairwoman of the House Republican Conference, said in a statement released by her office on Friday that she is deferring her decision on who she will support until later.
“We still have a long way to go, and I’m not making a decision on the presidential candidate right now,” she said.
But she did criticize Trump on Wednesday for statements he’s made about women, particularly women in the military who are victims of sexual assault.
In May 2013, before he announced his presidential campaign, Trump wrote on Twitter: “26,000 unreported sexual assaults in the military-only 238 convictions. What did these geniuses expect when they put men & women together?”
“Absolutely this is wrong. It’s inappropriate,” McMorris Rodgers said at a forum Wednesday sponsored by SheKnows Media. “By no means is sexual assault in the military allowed, or should be accepted.”
McMorris Rodgers said the GOP should focus on inclusive, rather than divisive, language.
“I believe the Republican Party – and what I want as an elected official – is to be presenting a very positive … message to everyone in this country, and not putting people down,” she said at the forum.
A positive message about government and civic engagement is something that Nethercutt has tried to foster through his foundation, an annual essay contest and civics curriculum he is developing. It has been noticeably absent from the recent campaign, particularly Thursday’s Republican debate, which he believes “reached a new low” with the top three candidates trading insults.
“I tell school kids, ‘Make civility your standard,’ ” he said.
But lately, civility has been in short supply.
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