As Republicans try to catch up to Democrats in political power in Olympia, they are catching up to the methods their opponents use to mold Washington’s future politicians.
The resumes of five Republicans making strong bids for the Legislature this year have at least one line in common: the Jennifer Dunn Leadership Institute, a program for conservative officeseekers modeled after similar Democratic initiatives.
The institute trains its second class this week. More than half of the 22 members are running for office, said board member and state Rep. Bill Hinkle. Others aspire to government or community leadership down the road.
“I think it’s a great tool to identify the next crop and generation of potential candidates,” said Brent Ludeman, director of the Senate Republican Campaign Committee, which stands to benefit from having a pool of conservatives or Republicans with leadership and campaign training under their belts.
All five candidates coming out of last year’s original 14-member class are running for the first time, but their inexperience hasn’t kept them from gathering support and money quickly.
Three, Gregg Bennett, Joe Fain and JT Wilcox, are among five GOP challengers who have so far raised the most money in challenges to incumbent lawmakers. Bennett , the CEO of a consulting business who is taking on Democratic budget writer Sen. Rodney Tom, has already spent $168,000 on his campaign, far more than any other legislative candidate.
Two other graduates, Nancy Wyatt and Shelly O’Quinn, haven’t reached the same fundraising levels in their challenges to House Democrats, but they’re outraising rival Republicans with more campaign experience.
The connections all of them made in their training may have helped.
Candidates tout endorsements from prominent Republicans like Attorney General Rob McKenna and King County Councilmember Reagan Dunn, both members of the institute’s board.
Fain, a former King County Council staffer trying to unseat freshman Democratic Sen. Claudia Kauffman of Kent, said the candidates attend each others’ campaign events and bounce ideas off of each other.
“I think it’s going to be extraordinarily helpful for us once we’re elected to have that kind of respect and relationship,” said Fain, 29.
DEMOCRATS DO IT
Republicans like Hinkle, McKenna and Reagan Dunn, the son of the late congresswoman who is the institute’s namesake, organized the institute, recruited its first class and serve on its board.
For years, Democrats in Washington have been training with the likes of the Institute for a Democratic Future and the national Progressive Majority. Hinkle, a conserva- tive Republican from Cle Elum, noticed the disparity. “I said, ‘How come we’re not doing something like that?’ ” he said.
Hinkle said he wanted something to recruit and train leaders committed to conservative principles like security, freedom and the free market. The institute was born.
But Hinkle rejected handing it over to party officials, he said, preferring a nonpartisan bent.
The party “wanted to have some say on what was going to happen, and I told them, ‘No, we’re not going to be associated with the Republican Party,’ ” Hinkle said.
The institute set up as a nonprofit, unlike the Institute for a Democratic Future, which organized as a group known as a 527 that can influence elections.
The Democrats’ institute has turned out 342 graduates since 1997 with this month’s graduation of its 13th class, said Jason Bennett, the campaign consultant who runs it.
Six alumni holding office include Sen. Derek Kilmer of Gig Harbor and Tacoma City Councilman Ryan Mello, while three more running this year include Pierce County Council candidate Todd Iverson. Others have gone to work for government, campaigns or lobbying firms, Bennett said.
Many Washington legislators have received training and campaign help from Progressive Majority, a national group with a Seattle office. “It was extremely valuable,” said Kauffman, one of the candidates at the top of the group’s priority list during her first run in 2006 and this year. “I was featured on their national campaign, which introduced me to a number of people across the United States who were supportive.”
The frequency of the conservative institute’s classes will depend on fundraising. It takes in corporate and individual donations at events like a $45-per-plate breakfast in May with Idaho Gov. Butch Otter – $250 for VIPs.
The institute teaches both the mechanics of a campaign – advertising, doorbelling, dealing with the news media – and more general leadership skills. Hinkle said trainees learn techniques for communication, critical thinking and raising money, whether for a community project or a campaign.
One session offered advice on figuring out how well employees or co-workers understand their job. Wilcox, 47, of Roy said it has helped him manage volunteers, a campaign necessity but something he hadn’t done much as an executive with his family’s Wilcox Farms.
Wilcox has picked up the support of many Republican officeholders despite challenging a Republican incumbent . Rep. Tom Campbell doesn’t attend either party’s private caucuses but chairs a committee under the Democratic House leadership.
Taking the six-day class helped Wyatt decide to run against Rep. Geoff Simpson, D-Covington, she said.
“When you run for office there’s a huge time commitment, family commitment,” said Wyatt, 52, president of the Auburn Area Chamber of Commerce. “You’re not there just to have your name on a ballot. There’s a lot of work involved.”
Jordan Schrader: 360-786-1826 jordan. firstname.lastname@example.org blog. thenewstribune.com /politics