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LISTEN: What is the future for the Republican Party in Washington?

A postmarked vote-by-mail ballot is shown at the King County election headquarters in Renton, Wash., Friday, Oct. 23, 2020.
Ted S. Warren
The Associated Press
A postmarked vote-by-mail ballot is shown at the King County election headquarters in Renton, Wash., Friday, Oct. 23, 2020.

Over the past few years, Washington Democrats seem to have solidified their power in the state. They have a majority in both legislative chambers. They make up most of our Congressional delegation. And they hold most statewide offices.

That puts local Republicans in a tough position going into this year's elections.

"I don't think anybody who's looking at the landscape realistically right now says it's a great time for the Republican party in Washington state," said Jon Nehring, mayor of Marysville and chair of Mainstream Republicans.

The organization promotes and supports moderate Republicans in Washington. The group is supporting several candidates in this year's races including: incumbent Secretary of State Kim Wyman, who's facing Democratic state Rep. Gael Tarleton; incumbent Treasurer Duane Davidson in his race against Democratic state Rep. Mike Pellicciotti; Maia Espinoza's challenge to incumbent Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykal in the officially nonpartisan race; and Jesse Jensen in challenging Democratic incumbent U.S. Rep. Kim Schrier in the 8th Congressional District.

Despite the challenges, Nehring says he's optimistic about the future of the party here.

He spoke with KNKX Morning Edition host Kirsten Kendrick. Listen to their conversation above or read the transcript below. Both have been edited for length and clarity.

Kirsten Kendrick, KNKX: Mayor, one of the reasons why we wanted to have this conversation with you is to really kind of look at things in Washington and how they are for Republicans. And in the last decade or so, the right, especially at the national level, has become associated with extreme and even dangerous rhetoric. And we're seeing some of that at the local level as well. What responsibility do you feel as a moderate Republican to combat that image?

Jon Nehring, Mainstream Republicans: We do stick to Washington state issues. We don't get really involved in the national conversation. There's enough people doing that. But, yeah, on the state level, I think we have a real responsibility to present an image of problem-solving, common-sense Republicans that are looking to join with all people of goodwill.

We don't look at it as well. We're the good folks and other folks are the bad folks. What we've tried to do is bring people together. And I've reached out to all sides of the party in that attempt to say, let's not look at each other as good side bad side, no purity tests, things of that nature. Let's try to come together around common sense issues that we agree on. And I think Republicans can agree on good governance, sound fiscal policy, lower taxes, common-sense environmental sustainability, local control for education, training in the trades in our education system, vocational training, fighting crime and drug abuse, things of that nature.

Jon Nehring

KNKX: Well you were saying that the goal of your organization is to really focus on the state level and really not concern yourself with the national level and things that are happening there. But there is some extreme rhetoric being leveled here in our state. Former state Rep. Matt Shea was investigated for domestic terrorism and ties to extremist groups. When you have someone like that, my question is, can Republicans who consider themselves moderate and seek to draw contrasts with more extreme politicians really afford to to not address that?

Nehring: Well, sure. I mean, I think it's not our responsibility to go address every single action of every single individual involved in public life that attaches the name Republican to themselves. So, you know, we could we could waste a lot of time running around grading everybody, being the police people of the Republican Party. That doesn't really move us forward. So instead, we choose to highlight the issues that do bring us together and work for the candidates that can, first of all, get elected, and second of all, that can move those issues forward. You know, when I sit down with folks here in Marysville, people really view that style of politics, where we're just running around looking at the extremes of everything, as just a giant waste of time, to be honest with you. There's real issues that need to be solved. And that's kind of where we focus our time.

KNKX: The Republican Party has also struggled to reach many communities of color. I was wondering how the Mainstream Republicans are working to change that. 

Nehring: We're big believers in that. I think we do need to, as a party, do a better job of reaching out to minority communities and people of color and, frankly, to get more women candidates. We're starting a program called League of their Own to try and bring more women candidates to the forefront. We do that by way of recruiting and we do that by way of supporting candidates that we hope can help enhance that in the Republican Party.

KNKX: What are some of these specific strategies you use in recruitment, for example?

Nehring: So rather than always trying to go find people with no elected experience and run them  which happens a lot in the Republican Party, and there's nothing wrong with that. There's nothing wrong with pulling someone out of the business community. I came out of the business community and ran for office and it was a success  but you can also find some of these individuals that already have experience running a campaign that are tied to a local community. And that doesn't detract from the other other walks of life in the private sector that you can recruit people from. But I think particularly if you look to local government and local committees or local boards, local commissions, you can find a lot of quality people from all walks of life.

KNKX: On the issue of diversity, what do you think Republicans have to offer communities of color?

Nehring: You know, I think quite a bit. I think when you're able to create jobs and wealth in a community, that lifts everybody, particularly when you're able to go into minority communities and create jobs and start new businesses and help them start new businesses. I think Republicans are uniquely qualified in a lot of ways in helping train up and helping equip people to do that and to create their own destiny. And so I think that's one way that we can lift all boats, including people in minority communities.

I think our support for public safety  right now, I think in some ways people look at that as adversarial, and maybe in some instances it has been. But I think, by and large, I know that minority communities that I talk to fear some of the lawlessness that occurs. And I think that we've got a real opportunity to better connect our public safety officials, our law enforcement officials with those communities, make sure that the communication is good and make sure that the relationship is there and that connection is there, and then along with that will come safer communities.

KNKX: Thinking back to what drew you to the Republican Party initially back in the Reagan era, and given the emphasis of the Mainstream Republicans on bringing people into this big tent, I wanted to get your thoughts on where the Republican Party is right now in Washington. And where does it go from here?

Nehring: You know, I think the people of Washington state right now are taking a really hard look at everything that's going on. And there is no doubt that the Republican image has some work to be done to be repaired. I'm certain there's quite a few people that are in the moderate area of either party that are saying, "Not sure that I want to be associated with that." But I think there's also that on the other side. I think there's a lot of moderate Democrats right now taking a look and saying, "Wow, I don't recognize my party right now." And so I think Republicans have a real opportunity to go into that moderate end and take a message to them that says, you know what, you can find a home here. And when we run good candidates that can speak to that, I think we'll win races.

A Seattle native and former KNKX intern, Simone Alicea spent four years as a producer and reporter at KNKX. She earned her Bachelor's of Journalism from Northwestern University and covered breaking news for the Chicago Sun-Times. During her undergraduate career, she spent time in Cape Town, South Africa, covering metro news for the Cape Times.