Some of Washington state's best-known Republican moderates cautiously embraced the conservative tea-party movement on Saturday in SeaTac, calling it a force for re-energizing their out-of-power party.
The annual gathering of Mainstream Republicans of Washington had billed a panel discussion as almost a taunt of the tea partyers, calling it "Tea Party or the Republican Party? How Ross Perot elected Bill Clinton."
But speakers mostly praised tea-party activists, saying the GOP could benefit from the new blood they could bring to the party.
State Republican Chairman Luke Esser called the tea-party movement, mostly known for angry protests of taxation and the Obama health-care bill, "a very helpful development."
"I don't think it's a bad thing that tea-party people are out there holding everybody's feet to the fire, every elected official's feet to the fire," he said.
Former U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton said the movement looked a lot like past insurgencies that swept establishment Republicans out in favor of more conservative leaders such as Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan.
"The overwhelming new blood in the Republican party always comes from the right," Gorton said.
"Yes, it's rough," he added. "We didn't really like some of those people very well — and we don't now. But they are going to be the new lifeblood of the party."
No mention was made of extreme tea-party rhetoric that has worried some moderate Republicans, such as a statement by a leader at a rally in Eastern Washington in February that she wanted to see U.S. Sen. Patty Murray "hung."
Even Dan Evans, the former governor and U.S. senator whose name is synonymous with the shrunken moderate wing of the Republican party in the state, joked he could partake of the tea party, so long as his was camomile.
But Evans and others cautioned that to win elections and regrow the party, Republicans have to build a coalition that zeros in on issues like taxes and spending that could unite tea-party types with more moderate voters, especially in King County.
"Stick to the issues we agree on," Bellevue City Council member Jennifer Robertson said. "Leave the social issues to people's personal decisions."
Evans suggested the party focus on the state Legislature, where "we've got a villain to work against."
"Frank Chopp has to go," Evans said, referring to the House Speaker, a Seattle Democrat who is widely regarded as the most powerful politician in Olympia.
"He corrals the House, ignores the Senate and beats down the governor," Evans said.
Democrats outnumber Republicans 61-37 in the state House and 31-18 in the state Senate.
Despite an upbeat feeling among Republicans about this election year, Gorton said they face "a long and torturous path" to regaining a majority in U.S. Congress.
Gorton said the high point for the party in the past year and a half occurred with Scott Brown's Senate election in Massachusetts, which came amid the heated partisan debate over the health-care bill.
Gorton warned: "The horror over the health-care bill has faded into the past. I don't think many people in these national elections are going to vote on that specific issue come fall. We have a lot of hard work ahead of us."
Copyright (c) 2010, The Seattle Times. Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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