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Washington Republicans believe governor's race is winnable

caption: The Washington Capitol in Olympia.
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The Washington Capitol in Olympia.
Austin Jenkins / Northwest News Network

Washington State Republicans have a problem.

They hope to replace Gov. Jay Inslee now that he’s bowing out. But their party hasn't won a gubernatorial race here since 1980.

Nevertheless, Caleb Heimlich, who chairs the state GOP, is upbeat about Republican chances in 2024. Heimlich thinks having an open seat race for governor gives his party a realistic shot at the office.

Heimlich's point: Republicans got close in the last two open seat races for governor.

In 2012, when Inslee first ran for governor, former State Attorney General Rob McKenna came within a few percentage points of beating him. And before that, the wild 2004 open seat contest between Republican Dino Rossi and Democrat Chris Gregoire was the closest governor's race in state history.

But Heimlich admits winning in this blue state in 2024 won't be easy. In part, it's hard to recruit candidates who know it’s an uphill battle.

Two big name Democrats are testing the waters. But so far, no prominent Republicans have declared, although Heimlich says a number are considering it.

Heimlich said he’s heard a few names floated including Republican state Sen. John Braun of Centralia, state Rep. Jim Walsh (R-Aberdeen) and former 3rd District Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Butler. In addition, Heimlich said he’s personally been in touch with some prominent “private citizens” from “business” and other areas but would not name them.

Getting the "right" candidate is just the first step. Heimlich said to win, the candidate must both “bring the party together” from the more conservative wing to the center right, and also “appeal to Puget Sound independents.”

“That's just the reality of the math," he said. "There are not enough conservative voters in Washington state to carry an election and win.”

In 2020, MAGA Republican Loren Culp lost to Gov. Jay Inslee by more than half a million votes.

Deanna Martinez, who heads the mainstream Republicans of Washington, said her party can win if they learn the lessons of 2020 and the 2022 midterms and nominate more moderate candidates.

“We were disappointed with this last election," Martinez said. "The red wave didn't happen. But if you break it down, it was mainstream candidates that won.”

By "mainstream" candidates, Martinez means candidates who are "fiscally conservative but socially moderate."

So far, no prominent Republicans have gotten into the race for governor in 2024.

One Republican who has declared is Richland School Board member and veteran Semi Bird. Bird has reportedly described himself as a “constitutional Christian conservative.” If elected, Bird would become the first Black governor in Washington state.

On the Democratic Party side, state Attorney General Bob Ferguson just announced his “exploratory campaign,” and state Lands Commissioner Hilary Franz has Tweeted that she’s got a “big announcement” coming soon.

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