When Rep. Jennifer Dunn (R.-Wash.) announced last week that she would not seek re-election this year, it was something of an anticlimax. After relinquishing the position of vice-chairman of the House GOP Conference in 1998 to make a losing bid for majority leader, Dunn has been out of the party’s leadership team for several years. Last year, she tried to secure the high-paying–$700,000 a year with a generous expense account– job as head of the Air Transport Association (see “Politics 2003,” Jan. 13, 2003). Although Dunn didn’t get the position, premature press reports that the congresswoman had accepted it and would resign from the House spawned widespread speculation over who would eventually succeed her in Washington State’s historically Republican 8th District (Seattle).
Last week, pundits and pols began dusting off those names and restarting the speculation, when Dunn (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 89%), whom many colleagues good-naturedly refer to as “Kim Novak” because of her strong resemblance to the star of Picnic, announced that she was stepping down after 12 years in Congress. Recently married for the second time, the 62-year-old congresswoman and former state party chairman cited her belief in limiting the terms of elected officials as a chief reason for retiring (although she herself had not supported legislation to limit congressional terms).
To simply recycling the names of Republican possibilities after the premature reports of Dunn’s exit last January won’t suffice because things have changed significantly in the past 12 months. A year ago, State Sen. Dino Rossi and King County Councilman Rob McKenna, both strong conservatives with appeal to the local business community, were prominently mentioned for the GOP nod in the 8th. Now, Rossi is the all-but-certain Republican nominee for governor this fall and McKenna is the leading Republican prospect for state attorney general. Both offices are being vacated by Democratic incumbents.
Another much-discussed Republican hopeful from last year, conservative State Sen. Pam Roach, may still make the House race. But Roach, who lost the ’92 primary to Dunn, suffered political damage last year when she lost a bid for the King County Council.
Still another Republican long touted as a U.S. House candidate announced last week he would not run for the open 8th seat. Jeff Kemp, onetime Seattle Seahawks footballer and son of former GOP vice-presidential nominee and HUD secretary Jack Kemp, said he was committed to his work as president of the new Families Northwest organization.
For a time, the leading Republican hopeful appeared to be TV-radio commentator John Carlson, a favorite on the right for his hard-hitting broadcasts and his past work as head of the conservative Washington Institute. Four years ago, Carlson won the Republican nomination for governor and, although he lost to Democratic incumbent Gary Locke by 50% to 38%, his candidacy further built up his following on the right. But, as talk of his potential candidacy mounted, the 44-year-old Carlson announced on his radio show that he would not run after all. Carlson cited the recent signing of a new contract with KVI-radio and family responsibilities (two young children) as reasons for not running.
At this time, the leading candidate for the GOP nomination appears to be King County Sheriff David Reichert. Respected as a tough “law and order” sheriff, the 53-year-old Reichert’s position is non-partisan and his views on most issues are unknown. According to Reichart spokesman John Urquhart, the sheriff “is open to other opportunities and this certainly is another opportunity.”
Also actively discussing a House bid are King County Republican Chairwoman Pat Herbold, wife of retired (and very wealthy) Microsoft executive Bob Herbold, and County Councilman David Irons Jr., who is expected to be in Washington, D.C., soon to discuss making the race with national party officials and several House members. Other GOP possibilities include State Senate Republican Floor Leader Luke Esser of Bellevue and Republican National Committeewoman and former federal prosecutor Dianne Tebelius.
DEMS AREN’T WRITING IT OFF
To be sure, the 8th District has never sent a Democrat to Congress since it was created in 1982. However, both Al Gore and Bill Clinton carried the district, as did Gov. Locke and Democratic Sen. Patty Murray in their last election battles. In addition, Democrats have been carrying traditionally Republican state legislative districts within the boundaries of the 8th.
Given this record, plus the prospect of a crowded field of Republican hopefuls thrashing through an exhausting primary, several heavyweight contenders are either seeking or exploring the Democratic nomination. Former Realnetworks executive Alex Alben of Mercer Island, for example, had been actively campaigning even before Dunn’s announced exodus. In addition, veteran TV reporter and anchor Tony Ventrella of KCPQ-13 (Seattle) has told reporters he is considering the race as a Democrat.
A Ventrella candidacy would be the next chapter in the long-running romance between Evergreen State voters and the broadcast industry. From 1984-92, three of the eight U.S. representatives from Washington State were former television newscasters.
LOUIE B. NUNN, R.I.P.
The January 27-29 Republican National Committee meeting in Washington was a bittersweet event for Kentucky State Party Chairman Ellen Williams. Repeatedly toasted and congratulated throughout the meeting for her role in electing Ernie Fletcher the first Republican governor of the Bluegrass State since 1967, Williams was then saddened by reports on the morning of the 29th that her state’s last Republican governor had died of a heart attack at age 79.
“Louie B. Nunn was the father of the modern Republican Party in Kentucky,” Williams recalled to me, “Long after he left the governorship and right up to his unfortunate passing, he remained a tremendous force in the party who helped us turn the state from solidly Democratic to one where both senators, the governor, and every House member but one are Republicans. ”
A native Kentuckian who served in the U.S. Army in World War II, Nunn earned degrees from the University of Cincinnati and the University of Louisville Law School. In 1954, at age 29, he was elected county judge (executive) in his native, strongly Democratic Barren County. In the 1950s and ’60s, Louie and brother and State GOP Chairman-to-be Lee Nunn would play as dynamic a role among their state’s Republican Party as the Kennedy brothers did among Democrats in Massachusetts and the Burton brothers in San Francisco. Under the Nunns’ aegis, Dwight Eisenhower carried Kentucky in 1956 and the state elected Republican U.S. Senators Thruston Morton (1956-68) and John Sherman Cooper (1946-48, 1952-54, 1956-72).
As the GOP nominee for governor himself in 1963, Nunn came within 15,000 votes of victory following a hard-hitting campaign that tied his opponent to the Kennedys. Four years later, with campaign help from his good friend California Gov. Ronald Reagan, Nunn became his state’s first Republican governor since 1943. A sign that times were changing in Kentucky was that Nunn first had to win a highly competitive Republican primary. He narrowly edged out then-Jefferson County Judge Marlow W. Cook, who went on to serve in the U.S. Senate from 1968-74.
Faced with a $36-million state budget deficit the day he took office, and thwarted by the courts in his attempts to fire large numbers of Democratic patronage appointees from state jobs, Gov. Nunn felt forced to raise the state sales tax by five cents. “Nunn’s nickel,” as it became known, was the sole tax increase under the Republican and it helped him leave the state with a $36-million surplus when he left office in 1971. Moreover, the revenue from “Nunn’s nickel” made it possible for the governor to overhaul Kentucky’s Charles Dickens-like mental health system, eventually completing 22 mental health centers and securing full accreditation for all four state psychiatric hospitals. (In contrast to Nunn’s one-time tax increase, Democrats upon retaking the governorship in 1971 promptly pushed through a massive $225 million hike in sales taxes on products from milk to gasoline).
But “Nunn’s nickel” continued to dog the former GOP governor. It was a major factor in his defeat for the U.S. Senate by Democrat Walter “Dee” Huddleston in 1972 even as Richard Nixon was sweeping Kentucky’s electoral votes. Nunn was also badly beaten by Democrat John Y. Brown, Jr. in his comeback bid for the governorship in 1979. As Ellen Williams put it, “That sales tax made his reputation in the long-run, but badly hurt him politically in the short run.”
A player in national Republican politics, Nunn was one of a handful of prominent Republican politicians on the initial steering committee for Ronald Reagan’s challenge to President Gerald Ford in 1976.