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Spin Control: Expect to hear about RINOs and DINOs through Aug. 6 primary

Dan Newhouse has been elected five times to Congress.  (Orion Donovan-Smith/The Spokesman-Review)

With candidate filing over in Washington and the primary election season moving into DefCon1 for some offices, the average voter might want to brace now for the onslaught of campaign rhetoric.

The Aug. 6 primary ballot will be exceptionally long this year as some races are extremely crowded – while this was being written, the governor’s race had 28 candidates and Eastern Washington’s 5th Congressional District race had 11 – which means the fights for many offices will be intense.

While the most money is typically spent on the general election, the rhetoric is often sharpest in the primary, which usually mixes intraparty divides with partisan disputes. Washington’s top-two primary means neither party is guaranteed a spot on the November ballot, so the next three months will offer examples of candidates in the mode of “me against the world” and every person for themselves.

Those who don’t live and breathe politics – which is to say, most readers – might see or hear a couple of terms that leave them scratching their heads. They are “RINO” and “DINO”.

Note that former is pronounced like the shortened version of rhinoceros, even though it is missing the “h.” The latter is pronounced to rhyme with the former, and not like the name of the Flintstones’ yappy pet snorkasaurus.

They are capitalized because they are acronyms, for Republican in Name Only and Democrat in Name Only.

People who use the terms are often oblivious to the nuances of states’ election laws. In Washington, voters don’t register by party, and anyone can claim allegiance to any party – Democratic, Republican, Libertarian, Green, Reform, Socialist, Constitutionalist, Freedom, Populist, Progressive or dozens of others that have shown up on candidate petitions over the years. Outside of the presidential race, the parties have no say in who carries their banner, and the parties can’t keep a candidate from listing that next to their name. A close reading of the ballot will also show that the candidates say only they “prefer” a particular party, not that they are a member of it. Some perennial candidates list a different party from election to election, or add a qualifier like “MAGA” to Republican or “Progressive” to Democrat, whenever the mood strikes them.

So in a real sense, every candidate is a party member “in name only.”

But the two terms, always used in a derogatory way, are meant to suggest that a RINO is not a good enough Republican and a DINO is not a good enough Democrat, regardless of what they might claim. This label is usually bestowed by someone – often an opposing candidate with same party preference listed on the ballot or their supporter – who feels they are a better, truer, more correct and more faithful party adherent than the candidate being accused of apostasy.

Parties evolve over time as the country and their members encounter new situations and issues. Things that were battled over in the past – free silver, prohibition, women’s suffrage – are no longer an issue. (I would have added direct election of U.S. senators to the list, but there was some discussion at the recent Washington Republican State Convention about doing away with that). People who agreed 99% of the time a decade ago might agree on only 90% now. Those who weren’t interested in politics a decade ago might have been galvanized over a particular issue, joined a party that seemed most receptive to their view of it and believe that is the solitary measure of fealty.

Such slur-slinging often occurs over the 9% on which people disagree, or when the relative newcomers don’t think the “old timers” are properly aligned with their key issue.

Thus, in the governor’s race, we see the supporters of one Republican, Semi Bird, accusing another Republican, Dave Reichert, of being a RINO. This charge is leveled despite the fact that Reichert was elected as King County Sheriff in 2001 and seven times to the U.S. House Representatives, starting in 2004 – always as a Republican.

By comparison, Bird has won one election, for Richland School Board, which is a nonpartisan position, and from which he was recalled by voters two years later for an alleged violation of the Open Meetings law.

Progressives in Western Washington often accused former state Sen. Tim Sheldon, a Democrat representing a mostly rural Olympic Peninsula district, of being a DINO – particularly when he began caucusing with Senate Republicans. Sheldon had won elections for decades as a Democrat to the Legislature and the Mason County board of commissioners. His standard response was that he was a Democrat before some of them were born and they don’t get to define him.

In central Washington’s 4th Congressional District, incumbent Republican Dan Newhouse is being accused of RINO-ness by some of his GOP opponents, in part because of his vote to impeach then-President Donald Trump. Newhouse, one should note, has been elected five times to Congress as a Republican in a very Republican district, and four times to the Legislature as a Republican. His father, Irv Newhouse, was a long-time Republican legislator of such stature that the building housing the state Senate Republican Caucus carried his name until it was torn down last year, and the replacement will also be so-named.

Two of Newhouse’s top primary opponents, neither of whom has been labeled a RINO, are Tiffany Smiley, who ran as a Republican for the U.S. Senate in 2022 but lost in the general to Democrat Patty Murray, and Jerrod Sessler, who ran for that congressional seat as a Republican in 2022, finishing third among GOP candidates and fourth overall.

So in the upside-down world of today’s politics, winning multiple elections and having a well-known Republican name doesn’t prevent one from being a dubbed a RINO. But running for a single election as a Republican and losing doesn’t earn the label.

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