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Pat Robertson, And Why Washington State Has Both A Primary And A Caucus

Ron Edmonds
AP File Photo
Televangelist Pat Robertson waves to the crowd at the 1988 Republican National Convention in New Orleans. Robertson was running for president that year, and Washington state's delegates went to him.

Washington Democrats head to caucuses on Saturday to figure out who their convention delegates will support for president. Republicans will decide how their delegates are awarded when the state primary happens in late May. Washington state has both a caucus and a primary.


Pat Robertson.

Or at least, he’s a large part of the reason. Back in 1988, the televangelist was running for president as a Republican. Much of his campaign was centered on socially conservative issues, such as abortion.

“Robertson packed the Republican caucuses in Washington, and dominated it through organizing,” said David Ammons, spokesman for the state's Elections Division. In 1988, he was a reporter for the Associated Press.

That year, Washington state Republicans sent an all-Robertson delegation to the national convention, in New Orleans. Ammons was there, too, as a reporter.

“New Orleans is a party town so there was a lot of drinking down on Bourbon Street and so forth by most of the delegation,” he said. “But the Robertson delegation would have morning prayer meetings, and they would have vigil circles regarding the abortion issue.”

Many of the GOP establishment in Washington state were “aghast,” Ammons said, that Robertson was being held up as what Washington Republicans believed in. In 1989, citizens put forward an initiative to the legislature asking for a state presidential primary.

“It didn’t even need to go to the ballot because the Legislature grabbed it when it was submitted to them for first reading, and they passed it into law,” he said.

Democrats only use the caucuses to award their delegates, but candidates Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton will both appear on the primary ballot in May. Republicans had precinct caucuses in February to pick who their delegates would be, and will use only the primary to determine who those delegates will support at the convention. 

The parties disagree on the merits of each system. Take, for example, the caucus:

“We believe that caucuses discriminate against certain groups of people,” said Susan Hutchison, who leads the state Republican party. “They discriminate against college students who are away at college and vote at the address at home, which is where you have to show up for your caucus. Single moms can’t participate because it’s hard to get child care on a Saturday. Military can’t participate because they are overseas or on assignment, so they are not available.” 

This will be the first presidential election in which the Washington GOP awards all its delegates through the primary system, and not the caucus.

The state Democrats allow members of the military to send their votes by way of a surrogate affidavit form. It was due last week. People could also have filled out a surrogate form because of a religious observance, an illness or disability, or if they have to work.

The Democrats say college students can change their voter registration to their college town. And they say a primary is expensive – about $11 million funded by the state – and that their system allows like-minded neighbors to come together and discuss their choice for president, on the party’s dime.

“But it’s way more than that,” state Democratic party chair Jaxon Ravens said. “We’re not just talking about the presidential election. We’re going to talk about our race for governor. Jay Inslee is up. The race for U.S. Senate: Patty Murray is up. We have to support their work going forward and there are obviously a lot of statewide races.”

Washington politics can be contentious and complicated, but they are hardly ever dull.

“I’ve been watching Washington politics for four decades now and it’s very fascinating,” said Ammons, the former reporter and state Elections spokesman. “We do things very different, I would say, from lots of the rest of the country.”

Ed Ronco is a former KNKX producer and reporter and hosted All Things Considered for seven years.
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