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Washington GOP hopes to heal wounds and unite behind Trump

Delegates to the Washington State Republican Convention recite the Pledge of Allegiance Saturday in Pasco before starting the day’s activities. (Jim Camden / The Spokesman-Review)
Delegates to the Washington State Republican Convention recite the Pledge of Allegiance Saturday in Pasco before starting the day’s activities. (Jim Camden / The Spokesman-Review)

PASCO – Washington Republicans did their best Saturday to smooth over the bumps and bruises of a tough primary season that unexpectedly left them with a single presidential candidate about two weeks ago.

“It’s not easy to unite when you’ve devoted your time to a candidate,” state GOP Chairman Susan Hutchison told supporters of candidates other than presumptive nominee Donald Trump at the party’s convention in Pasco. “The wounds are still raw. I hang on to the hope.”

They’ll need that unity in the fall, she said, to have any chance of winning the governor’s race for the first time since 1980 and controlling both houses of the Legislature.

Until early May, Republicans were looking at a much different, and likely more contentious, convention. The original 17 candidates had been whittled to three, but Texas Sen. Ted Cruz was to speak at a Friday night banquet and Ohio Gov. John Kasich at a Thursday gathering, Hutchison said. Trump wasn’t on the official schedule, but could have shown up at any time.

That was before Trump won a series of primaries in April and Cruz lost a self-declared must-win contest in Indiana on May 3 and suspended his campaign the next day. Kasich dropped out a day later.

“Really bad timing for the Washington Republican Party,” Hutchison said.

That left the Cruz campaign with a solid organization formed in Washington since the precinct caucuses, but no candidate. Trump supporters had a candidate, but not much organization.

“The Trump organization activated in Washington the first of April,” campaign Chairman Don Benton said. It focused on the May 24 presidential primary, which will determine how delegates are apportioned.

The Cruz organization pushed a slate of national delegate candidates who have been active for the Texas senator for months, and captured 40 of the 41 available slots. They waved Cruz signs, some of them with the name of their candidate and his choice for vice president Carly Fiorina inside an outline of Washington state.

Although there was no more reliable applause line in candidate speeches than a reference to supporting the nation’s military, the Cruz slate included former state Rep. Graham Hunt, of Orting, who resigned from the Legislature earlier this year after reports surfaced he exaggerated his military service.

Hunt didn’t mention that in his brief statement. Instead, he said he was a constitutional conservative “who’s battled in the halls of Olympia.” He was elected on the first round of balloting.

Regardless of whom they supported in the caucuses, most delegate candidates drew applause as they called for unity and talked of the need to beat expected Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.

State Sen. Brian Dansel of Republic, an early Trump supporter, said there was an aura of unreality about the fervor of the Cruz bloc: “It’s as if you and I went to the Super Bowl for the Denver Broncos and the Carolina Panthers, and cheered for the Seahawks.”

Spokane County Treasurer Rob Chase, a Trump supporter, ran for delegate even though he had no expectation of being elected. It was worth it, he said, to speak briefly against the Trans Pacific Partnership, which he denounced as a terrible agreement.

Benton, who also tried and failed to get elected as a national convention delegate or alternate, said he doubted there was much difference in policies between the two candidates’ supporters, and if Cruz delegates want to go to Cleveland to shape the platform, that won’t hurt Trump.

He predicted the billionaire businessman would win majorities in the state and each congressional district in the presidential primary, and all Washington nominating votes will be cast for him at the convention.

“We’re about unity,” Benton said. “They’re all going to be Trump delegates after Tuesday.”

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