Conservative lawmaker chosen to lead Washington State Republican Party

By: - August 12, 2023 4:09 pm

State Rep. Jim Walsh of Aberdeen is speaking to reporters about being elected chair of the Washington State Republican Party, on Aug. 12, 2023 in Olympia. (Jerry Cornfield/Washington State Standard)

Republican state lawmaker Jim Walsh, an energizing voice for conservatives, was elected Saturday as the new leader of the Washington State Republican Party.

Walsh, of Aberdeen, beat Matt Hawkins, a Spokane County GOP leader, by an overwhelming margin in the vote by state committee members and county party chairs during a meeting in Olympia. He had been heavily favored.

As a lawmaker, he’s led the party’s right flank into battle with Democrats on issues like gun control, abortion and pandemic restrictions during the COVID-era.

Walsh, addressing the activists ahead of the vote, spoke of improving the party’s electoral fortunes by increasing Republican voter turnout and winning over those disaffected by Democratic policies.

“We can win. We will win and we will push on every front cleaning up our elections and harvesting ballots,” he told them. “We will improve the lives of people in this state.”

Also Saturday, in a further sign of conservatives’ tightening grip on the party, state committee members voted to endorse Joe Kent in his 2024 bid to unseat incumbent Democratic Rep. Marie Gluesenkamp Perez in the 3rd Congressional District in southwest Washington.

Kent in the 2022 primary defeated Republican Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler, who voted to impeach former President Donald Trump. Kent, who had Trump’s backing, narrowly lost in the general election to Gluesenkamp Perez.

An endorsement in the race wasn’t expected until the state party convention next year. But Kent supporters succeeded in amending the rules in order to vote on it early.

Following the vote, Walsh became the chief executive and public face of a party that has struggled in recent years to gain power in Washington at the state level and in Congress, particularly as former President Donald Trump soured the GOP’s brand for many moderates.

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

And Washington hasn’t had a Republican governor since the 1980s.

Walsh, speaking with reporters as votes were counted, was upbeat on garnering support from those who’ve turned away from the Democratic Party.

“They’re not quite Republicans. They are free agents,” he said. “They’re done with the overreach of Olympia. They’re not sure they’re Republicans but they want a new home politically and philosophically. We’re going to give them a new home.

He brushed aside concerns of Trump undermining Republican efforts next year.

“We are not nationalizing the election,” he said. “Elections will be Washington elections.”

Walsh represents the 19th Legislative District, which stretches from Interstate 5 west to the ocean covering parts of Cowlitz, Grays Harbor, Lewis, Pacific, Thurston and Wahkiakum counties. 

He was elected to 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, who could keep his seat, said Saturday he has not decided if he will.

Hawkins campaigned enthusiastically, pushing a “Pathway to a Red-WA” strategy anchored by a “Contract with the Citizens of Washington State” that would be developed by GOP precinct officers and county leaders.

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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.