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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Washington GOP wants candidates to drop out ahead of primary election to boost odds of victory. Some say ‘absolutely not’

Rachel Howard, then a Gonzaga University student, places her election ballot in a ballot box outside the downtown Spokane Public Library on Nov. 7, 2016.  (COLIN MULVANY/The Spokesman-Review)

Worried that crowded fields of Republicans could dilute the primary election vote in races across Washington this year, the state party wants to handpick candidates months before voters can weigh in and ask the rest to fall in line, according to documents obtained by The Spokesman-Review.

Several Republican candidates running to represent Eastern Washington in Congress have called the move heavy-handed and undemocratic. None who responded to a request for comment said they’d sign on to the candidate pledge.

The Washington State Republican Party will endorse candidates for statewide and congressional races at its state convention in Spokane from April 18-20. In order to ask for this endorsement, candidates had until Thursday to pay a filing fee – $500 for statewide candidates or $250 for congressional candidates – and to sign a “Candidate Pledge,” according to a manual for the party’s state convention.

That pledge states that a candidate who does not receive the state party’s endorsement will endorse the candidate who did and will not file for the office they intended to. While seven Republicans have formally announced their candidacy, and more have filed with the Federal Elections Commission, candidates cannot file to appear on a ballot until May.

If candidates agree to and abide by this pledge, it would significantly winnow the field nearly four months ahead of the Aug. 6 primary, the first time voters would have a chance to directly voice their support for a given candidate.

State GOP Executive Director Brady Batt did not provide a statement, saying that only Chairman Jim Walsh could do so. However, the party spelled out its motivation for the pledge in its 2024 Caucus and Convention Manual, pointing to Washington’s Top 2 primary that allows anyone to vote for any candidate regardless of party affiliation.

“This means that non-Republican voters have been deciding who will represent the Republican Party or, as happened in the 2023 Secretary of State race, that no Republican candidate will advance to the General Election ballot …,” the manual states.

Reducing the number of Republicans in a given race would allow the party to consolidate fundraising and volunteer efforts to fewer candidates, increasing the party’s chance of winning elections, the manual continued.

Three Republican candidates for the 5th Congressional District said they declined to sign the pledge, including Spokane City Councilman Jonathan Bingle, Medical Lake Mayor Terri Cooper and former state employee Jonathan Guenther.

“I think that it takes away from the freedom of everybody to put their name in the hat and run for office,” Cooper said. “I think the voters are a little disenfranchised from the political parties, and when the parties start choosing who can run, I just don’t think it can work.”

Bingle noted that Republican candidates only started launching their campaigns in February, after incumbent Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers announced she would not run for re-election.

“We just started campaigning, but in two weeks if someone else gets the endorsement, you want me to endorse them too?” he said. “Absolutely not.”

Guenther noted that there have been no debates for Republican candidates for the office and none are scheduled before the state convention.

“What they should have done is gather the candidates early on and had a series of debates, and people would have weeded themselves out,” Guenther said. “This? This is disjointed, and I don’t like it.”

Spokane County Treasurer Michael Baumgartner, who expects to lead the pack in early fundraising when those figures are reported around April 15, said he was not aware of a candidate pledge, but said he would stay in the race regardless of the party’s endorsement.

Ferry County Commissioner Brian Dansel, talk radio host Rene Holaday and State Rep. Jacquelyn Maycumber, who are also running for the seat as Republicans, did not respond to requests for comment.

While the state party’s convention manual states that signing the pledge is a requirement to seek the organization’s endorsement, the pledge separately allows a candidate to note that they will not agree to its provision about dropping out. Candidates who otherwise met the party’s requirements would still have their names and campaign statements put forward to delegates for possible endorsement, but their decision not to agree to the pledge would be noted.

Batt said that, while the manual states that a candidate has to sign the pledge to seek the party’s endorsement, that this was not actually the case. Instead, failing to sign the pledge would be treated similarly to a candidate who did sign but wrote that they did not agree to the pledge. He also said the pledge was “nonbinding.” 

Delegates can by two-thirds vote decide to endorse up to two Republicans in the same race, according to the manual. Batt said that delegates can also elect to not endorse anyone in a race. 

Some Democrats have also expressed a desire to narrow their field, pointing to the 2016 state Treasurer race where three Democrats diluted the vote and two Republicans both advanced to the general election, despite collectively receiving less than 50% of the vote. In February, the three Democratic candidates for the seat – OB-GYN Bernadine Bank, former diplomat Carmela Conroy and Ann Marie Danimus, who owns and operates a consulting firm – were told there had been quiet conversations about quickly consolidating party support.

At the time, Bank and Danimus called the move undemocratic, though there was no similar request that any candidate drop out of the race. Those conversations, which state Democratic leadership denied approving, have since quieted, according to the campaigns.