Months after he was chosen to lead the Washington state Republican Party, and following his first election cycle in the new role, 19th District legislator Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen, continues to plot his party’s strategy forward.
Walsh, first elected to the Legislature in 2016, was chosen in August to serve as chairman of the state GOP on a platform that included building the party’s infrastructure to “fight in every race and every district and yield no vote to the other side,” restoring enthusiasm and support in elections and a proactive and “issues-focused media campaign to reboot the party’s brand.”
“We are going to reach out to all people of good will in this state, including people you might not think of as ‘traditional’ Republicans. I don’t believe a person just living their life is a Republican or Democrat. People are people,” Walsh said in his acceptance speech. “They just vote one way or the other. And, here in Washington, they’re ready to vote the other way.”
In the months since, Walsh has focused on school board races throughout the state, “get out the vote” efforts, attempts to impact state policy through citizen-led initiatives and efforts to shorten the primary season and endorse candidates earlier in the election process.
As he gears up for the 2024 legislative session and an election cycle that includes a series of high profile races, Walsh continues his efforts to increase his party’s messaging and outreach efforts in the state.
“We are going to focus on voter turnout,” Walsh told The Chronicle.
A trial run in 2023
In the November election, the state GOP supported 36 school board candidates throughout the state, including the re-election campaign of Tanya Naillon in Onalaska. The party did not officially endorse candidates, but did provide voter data, messaging assistance and other non-financial assistance.
“Generally, we did not contribute directly to campaigns,” Walsh said.
Following the election, Walsh highlighted the success that Naillon and other candidates had in their races. Naillon was re-elected to the Onalaska School Board with 63.3% of the vote.
“This has been such a great experience. Since I first called these candidates, earlier this year, they’ve been outstanding partners in building winning campaigns. We worked together to refine our strategies and tactics. Tools for listening and talking with everyone, all around Washington,” Walsh said in a statement following the election. “Some candidates wanted more help, others less — but everyone agreed with the goal of showing voters that common-sense conservatives can win in every region of the state.”
In 2023, Walsh said the state party selected the “bellwether” races that allowed officials to refine their election strategy and “sharpen our skills.”
But with congressional, legislative and statewide offices up for grabs next year, many of which don’t include an incumbent seeking reelection, interest remains high.
“The ballot will be a lot more crowded in 2024,” Walsh said.
A look at 2024
Congressionally, Walsh sees three potential pickups in the House of Representatives, including the seat held by freshman Democratic representative Marie Gluesenkamp Perez. Elected in 2022, Gluesenkamp Perez beat challenger Joe Kent, who is again running in 2024.
Hours before Walsh was elected GOP chair, the state GOP formally endorsed Kent in the potential rematch. Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan organization that analyzes elections, rates the race as a “Democrat toss-up.”
To the north, the Eighth Congressional District held by Democratic Rep. Kim Schrier is also winnable, according to Walsh. The seat spans the Cascade mountains from Issaquah south to Eatonville, east to Ellensburg up to the northern shores of Lake Chelan. Schrier, a three-term incumbent, succeeded longtime representative and King County Sheriff Dave Reichert, who did not seek reelection in 2018. Cook Political Report rates the seat as “Likely Democrat.”
Following Rep. Derek Kilmer’s announcement he would not seek reelection in 2024, Walsh believes the Sixth Congressional District is potentially winnable, though he said it still “leans Democratic.”
Former Democratic gubernatorial candidate and current Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz bowed out of the race to launch a bid to succeed Kilmer. State Sen. Emily Randall, D-Bremerton, has also announced a bid, and Walsh said the race is “likely to be a very spirited primary between two lively candidates.”
“That model has been shrinking,” Walsh said of the congressional district’s partisan lean. Held by Democrats since the 1960s, the sixth district encompasses the Olympic Peninsula.
“We’re interested in all three of those races,” Walsh said.
In addition to the state’s 10 house seats, Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell’s seat will also be up for election in 2024, though Cook Political Report categorizes the seat as “Solid” Democrat. Across the state, Washington is poised to see a shakeup in elected office following Gov. Jay Inslee’s decision not to seek a fourth term.
According to Public Disclosure Commission data, Democratic Attorney General Bob Ferguson is the leading fundraiser in the race to replace Inslee, with Sen. Mark Mullet, D-Issaquah, also running on the Democratic side.
The race for governor includes two prominent Republicans — Reichert and former Richland School Board member Semi Bird.
A poll of 700 voters released by the Northwest Progressive Institute on Nov. 16 shows Ferguson and Reichert tied at 31%, with Bird at 10% and Mullet at 5%. In a two-way race, the poll showed Reichert at 46% and Ferguson at 44%.
Walsh expressed skepticism, saying people should “always be weary of polls like this,” adding they could be used by candidates in fundraising efforts.
“That organization’s business model is to use statistics to scare its supporters into making contributions. And they do that effectively,” Walsh posted on X. “Still, the numbers are … interesting.”
Other statewide offices up for election include the superintendent of public instruction and public lands commissioner, a race Walsh said could be won by a “common sense conservative.”
Walsh also sees the potential for the Republican Party to pick up five or more seats in the House and three or more seats in the Senate, with the focus on suburban Seattle legislative districts northward.
In an attempt to let candidates shift their attention to the general election, the state GOP will hold its convention in April, where the party will endorse candidates for statewide and federal offices.
Walsh said it would be “hypothetically possible” to revisit prior endorsements at the convention, including Kent’s.
The early convention and formal endorsement won’t prevent candidates from filing for the August primary, though Walsh said “we hope it discourages” them.
“We hope that will help conservative candidates do better all around the state,” Walsh said.
Attempts to impact state policy
Ahead of the 2024 legislative session, Walsh released the GOP’s plan to reduce homelessness in the state. The policy proposals include compelling mental health treatment and substance abuse treatment options for “anyone receiving housing assistance who is addicted to drugs” and the enforcement of “strong bail and parole processes.”
“What we call ‘homelessness’ isn’t just a single issue. It involves many factors — the largest is illegal drug use,” Walsh said in a statement announcing the plan. “But there are others: Mental illness, alcoholism, bad housing policy out of Olympia.
In an interview, Walsh said the proposal is a “conversation starter, not a conversation closer” and said reform would likely take multiple legislative sessions.
Walsh, though, supports other efforts to impact policy that could be enacted sooner.
Walsh was on hand last week as more than 400,000 signatures were submitted to the secretary of state to try to repeal the state’s recently enacted carbon tax policy through a process known as an Initiative to the Legislature.
If certified, legislators would have three options to respond to Initiative No. 2117 when they reconvene in the new year, including adopting the initiative as written.
“All state agencies are prohibited from implementing any type of carbon tax credit trading, also known as “cap and trade” or “cap and tax” scheme, including the climate commitment act previously codified,” the proposal reads.
Walsh has previously criticized the legislation, which he said resulted in increased fuel costs.
“In my district, and all around the state, rising fuel costs are forcing working people and families to make tough financial decisions, like whether to buy groceries or a tank of gas,” Walsh said in a Sept. 21 legislative statement. “Food banks report that more people need their help because the cap-and-trade scheme has increased fuel costs, leaving individuals and families unable to buy food.”
If the Legislature objects or fails to act on Initiative 2117, the matter will appear on the 2024 general election ballot. The Legislature could also approve an alternative measure, and both proposals would appear on the November ballot.
The initiative is one of six for which organizers are attempting to secure signatures, with others including proposals to amend police pursuit rules, repeal the capital gains tax, forbid an income tax, allow parents to review their student’s health and disciplinary records, and allow residents to opt out of the state-run long-term care insurance program.
According to data from the nonpartisan political encyclopedia Ballotpedia, Washington citizens have filed 1,728 Initiatives to the Legislature since 1914. During that time, the Legislature enacted six proposals, while 32 have appeared on the ballot. Of those, voters approved 17 and rejected 15.