Seattle Times reporter Jim Brunner has the scoop: Kirby Wilbur beat Luke Esser to become the new chair of the Washington State Republican Party this afternoon. Wilbur won by a wide margin—69 to Esser's 36. A third candidate, Bill Rennie, got seven votes.
Brunner sums it up best on his twitter feed, tweeting simply: "Wow."
Wilbur, a former KVI radio talk jock, is currently head of Americans for Prosperity Washington—a group that's being investigated by the Public Disclosure Commission for alleged campaign finance violations during the 2010 elections. (The Tacoma News Tribune interviewed Wilbur about the allegations earlier this week.)
Americans for Prosperity Washington is the local chapter of Americans for Prosperity, the Koch Brothers group that bankrolled the Tea Party movement.
"You have to interpret this as a win for the Tea Party in Washington State," Washington State Democratic Party Chair Dwight Pelz told PubliCola this afternoon. "Luke Esser was a mainstream Republican. Kirby is much more of a Tea Party talk jock."
I have a call in to Wilbur.
I did talk to GOP consultant and Republican talking head, former Republican party state chair, Chris Vance. (Vance was GOP chair between 2001-2006.) Asked if Wilbur's win was a victory for the Tea Party, Vance said: "No, no, no, no. This has nothing to do with the Tea Party. The Tea Party is new people flooding into the party. Kirby Wilbur has been a Republican since the 1970s. He's a longtime Reagan Republican."
Vance says he first met Wilbur back in the 1980s when Vance was president of the Western Washington college Republicans and Wilbur was a mentor as president of the state Young Republicans.
He says there are a few main reasons Wilbur won, including the perception that Republicans didn't do as well in Washington State as they did nationwide during the 2010 red wave and that Wilbur, as a former radio personality, is popular with the grassroots, acknowledging: "I'm not saying the Tea Party didn't vote for Kirby. They're going to vote against the establishment."
There's similar news out of New Hampshire today, where a Tea Party candidate also won the race for GOP state party chair.
Wilbur did, in fact, make the case today that the Washington State GOP should have done better during 2010's red wave, a message that must have resonated: Not a single Democratic incumbent lost a federal seat here. Most notably, U.S. Sen. Patty Murray beat Republican Dino Rossi and U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen (D-WA, 2) held on to beat Republican John Koster—while the GOP triumphed nationally. U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera (R-WA, 3) was elected in November, but she won a race for an open seat.
Esser's Republicans did make impressive gains in the state legislature in November, narrowing the gap in the state senate from 31-18 to 27-22, and in the state house from 61-37 to 56-42.
Several of those senate pickups were arguably Wilbur's doing, though. Americans for Prosperity Washington did mailers against all four ousted Democratic incumbents—Sens. Randy Gordon, Claudia Kauffman, Chris Marr, and Eric Oemig who were replaced by newly elected Republican state Sens. Steve Litzow, Joe Fain, Michael Baumgartner, and Andy Hill respectively.
Esser himself was an insurgent four years ago when he ousted chair Diane Tebelius, making the case that the local party was doing poorly at the ballot box.
Funny question: If the PDC complaint against Wilbur gets bumped up to the office of Republican Attorney General Rob McKenna (who supported Esser, by the way), is the likely GOP 2012 gubernatorial candidate, McKenna, going to be suing his own party chair, Wilbur?
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