Conservative lawmaker poised to be Washington’s next state Republican party leader

Aberdeen Rep. Jim Walsh, heavily favored to grab the torch as party chair, is already plotting the GOP’s path to winning in 2024.

By: - August 3, 2023 5:07 pm

Republican Rep. Jim Walsh, who is vying to lead the Washington State Republican Party, speaks to hundreds at “Hazardous Liberty! Defend the Constitution!” rally to protest the stay-at-home order, at the Capitol building in Olympia, Washington. (Photo by Karen Ducey/Getty Images)

A conservative Republican lawmaker known for his fiery orations is the heavy favorite to become the next leader of the Washington State Republican Party.

State Rep. Jim Walsh of Aberdeen and Matt Hawkins of the Spokane County Republican Party, are competing for the chairmanship in an Aug. 12 election. 

Walsh has reportedly secured support of at least 80% of the 117 party officials eligible for the vote, which will be held during a party meeting in Olympia. That group is composed of the chair and two state committee members from each of the state’s 39 county Republican parties.

The next chair will take the helm of a party that has struggled in Washington in recent years to gain power at the state level and in Congress, particularly as former President Donald Trump has soured the GOP’s brand for many moderate voters.

Walsh didn’t predict victory in his bid but said he is talking to potential candidates and preparing the foundation he wants to construct.

“The party is in good shape financially and organizationally. There are no fires to put out,” he said in a recent interview. “I can focus on building the party infrastructure and that means the ground game in every county of the state. We want to win in 2024.”

Tough political landscape

Whoever is elected will succeed Caleb Heimlich who is departing after five-and-a-half years as party chair for a new job working on policy matters and candidate recruitment with a national nonprofit.

Though he leaves money in the bank and a healthy operation, the party lost ground on his watch by the most important measure, elections.

Today, no Republican holds a statewide elected office. Only two Republicans represent Washington in Congress after Democrats flipped a congressional seat in southwest Washington in 2022. And Democrats built commanding majorities in the state House and Senate. 

The party also failed to break Democrats’ nearly 40-year grip on the governor’s office.

“Obviously the results have not been as we hoped but we have punched above our weight in a very difficult political environment in Washington,” Heimlich said. 

Those difficulties in his tenure are largely attributable to the impact of Trump, who’s been atop the GOP ticket nationally since 2016. 

Among the electorate, he is disliked by Democratic, Independent and some Republican voters in Washington. But Trump’s in-your-face populism is embraced by the GOP’s right flank whose support seems to further solidify with each ensuing indictment.

In Washington, his presence on the political stage sows division among Republicans who feel he can do no wrong and those who feel he’s turning independent voters off to the GOP message and costing elections.

“It’s always interesting to watch people try to nationalize the elections,” Walsh said. “I think the left loves Trump. They love to talk about him.”

“Our brand of conservatism is a distinctly Washington brand,” he continued. “What the people in the party seek is a clearer, principled message. If we speak plainly and boldly what we believe – small government, protect public safety and an economy serving all families – we will build our coalition.”

Walsh aims to ensure voters aren’t left without a Republican option in statewide races as they were in the 2022 battle for Secretary of State. That occurred because three GOP candidates competed in the primary, splitting the vote and allowing a nonpartisan candidate to advance.

“No more intense primary fights in August,” he vowed. “We will nominate and endorse our candidates in April. Those candidates will have six months to raise funds and run an effective campaign.”

A new leader won’t change the GOP’s direction or deliver wins next year, predicted state Democratic Party chair Shasti Conrad.

“If the next chair is Jim Walsh, as it appears it will be, Republicans will prove again that they have no plan, no agenda, and no ideas for how to deliver for our state, other than their same old tired and bigoted agenda that Washington has rejected at the ballot box over and over,” she said.

Double duty?

Walsh represents the 19th Legislative District, which stretches from Interstate 5 west to the ocean and takes in parts of Cowlitz, Grays Harbor, Lewis, Pacific, Thurston and Wahkiakum counties. He is the third Republican to represent the district since the 1940s.

He won his seat in the House in 2016 by fewer than 500 votes. He’s been re-elected three times, each by a larger margin than in his first run. 

Walsh is the ranking minority member on the Civil Rights and Judiciary Committee where last session he provided many of the GOP objections to Democratic-authored bills to expand and strengthen abortion protections in Washington.

He’s a frequent speaker on the House floor and at political rallies. And he’s not immune to controversy, like two years ago when he wore a six-point yellow Star of David on his shirt during a speech at a church. That is a symbol Nazis forced Jews to wear during the Holocaust.

His action drew rebukes from near and far, and he apologized

“This gesture went too far,” he told Jason Rantz on KTTH AM 770. “It was inappropriate and offensive. I’m terribly sorry that it happened and that I was a part of it.”

If Walsh becomes chair, one of the 59-year-old Aberdeen resident’s first decisions may be whether to stay in the Legislature as state law allows holding both posts.

“I haven’t decided,” he said. “I’ll make up my mind after Aug. 12.”

Walsh wouldn’t be the first Republican legislator to carry out double duty as chair of the state party.

Former state senator Don Benton of Clark County was elected party chair in 2000. He served one year, losing his bid for a full-term to Chris Vance.

Walsh said if he does both jobs, the late Democratic U.S. Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson of Everett will be his model. Jackson, while in the Senate, led the Democratic National Committee from 1960 to 1961.

Hawkins, 65, of Spokane, represents the Spokane County Republican Party on the state committee. He’s also a precinct committee officer and ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in 2018.

In an email, he said he wants the party to focus on making families and communities stronger and safer and deliver Republican wins on a scale “like we had before 1933.” 

Republicans held large legislative majorities in the early part of the 20th century. In 1931, for example, the GOP had majorities of 89-8 in the House and 41-1 in the Senate. The tide turned in the 1932 election with Democrats picking up enough wins to secure majorities of 25-21 in the Senate and 70-29 in the House.

“I plan to lead by tapping into the talent spread all across this wonderful state. It is about time that we recognize the value of our resources and citizens in all counties and from all of life’s disciplines,” Hawkins wrote.

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Jerry Cornfield
Jerry Cornfield

Jerry Cornfield joined the Standard after 20 years covering Olympia statehouse news for The Everett Herald. Earlier in his career, he worked for daily and weekly papers in Santa Barbara, California.