Politics & Government

'Luke the Truth' hopes to lead GOP to comeback

As a sports columnist, Luke Esser tagged himself "Luke the Truth." Today, his assignment is to be "Luke the Miracle Worker."

He's the new state Republican Party chairman.

The party got drubbed in the last election - including Esser's own surprising loss of his state Senate seat in traditionally Republican Bellevue - and starts the 2008 campaign cycle in a deep, deep hole.

Last weekend, GOP grass-roots leaders from the 39 counties dumped Chairwoman Diane Tebelius as the final victim of the election cycle and cast their lot with Esser. Party elders hope his genial personality, persuasive communication skills and Olympia connections will help lead them out of the wilderness.

The reshaping of the state party could also make it more likely that Dino Rossi runs again for governor, although he's still publicly noncommittal.

Campaign pros and GOP legislative leaders say Esser and the fresh new look at the state party are a shot in the arm for a party that hasn't had much good news in a long time. He can help "de-link" state candidates from the national scene that was so damaging last year, said Senate Republican Leader Mike Hewitt.

Attorney General Rob McKenna, Esser's boss for the past dozen years, said his protege has just the right skills to help the party bootstrap itself back into strong contention.

"I see no reason why we can't bounce back," Esser said.

Even Democrats profess to like Esser. House Majority Leader Lynn Kessler, D-Hoquiam, said he's seen as a smart and worthy adversary, but added, "We don't plan to yield an inch." The Democrats re-elected Dwight Pelz unanimously last weekend.

New sheriff

The GOP race was thought to be close, but Esser defeated Tebelius, a longtime party activist and former federal prosecutor, by a landslide 71-43. Both insist that the party election wasn't about assessing blame for the 2004 debacle, but about who would be the stronger and more effective leader for a comeback.

Esser said he told the closed-door gathering that the monster setback was an aberration, but that the first step back is to acknowledge that Washington Republicans were damaged more than in other states.

"We are in a very bad way," Esser says. "We are barely at a third of the House and Senate and we have to acknowledge that and realize that we have a lot of work to do."

Esser knows all too well the sting of loss. The anti-GOP tide swept him out of his Senate seat last fall, even though he was the year's best-financed GOP legislative candidate and had served eight years from the traditionally Republican stronghold.

Oly connection

On his first work day as chairman, Esser headed straight to the Capitol to make nice with his old colleagues in the House and Senate Republican caucuses. Some of the old lions had felt the party wasn't properly connected to Olympia, and Esser pledged to work on an aggressive and unified message and to make rebuilding the caucuses Job 1, Hewitt said.

Esser will assign the new party communications director, yet unnamed, to Olympia for the duration of the legislative session. He hopes to amplify the caucuses' increasingly astringent commentaries on one-party control by the Democrats.

Rossi update

Dino Rossi, who had worried about the party's ability to raise money, micro-target voters and generate excitement among the grass roots, said this week that he expects Esser, his old Senate colleague, to skillfully handle those essentials and to quickly raise the party's visibility.

For now, Rossi said he's taking his family to Disneyland, working on his Forward Washington foundation, doing a PowerPoint presentation on "Olympia's fiscal irresponsibility" and still describing his own candidacy as 50-50.