Pacific Northwest Republicans enter a pivotal year with a president deeply unpopular with voters in Washington and Oregon. They do it with at least three candidates or potential candidates who are deeply controversial and threaten to be embarrassing to the party’s chances to regain a position as serious contender in statewide politics.
There is the case of Tim Eyman, the omnipresent bomb-thrower and initiative careerist. He continues to face legal issues dealing with his financial transactions in his many initiative campaigns. More importantly, he is flirting with a run for governor as an Independent, while flirting with a Republican candidacy. As an Independent, Eyman could probably finish second to Gov. Jay Inslee in a primary contest, thanks to our top-two elections. That wipeout would be deeply embarrassing for Republicans.
Washington Republicans have long worked in the wake of Eyman campaigns, without specifically aligning efforts. Trace Eyman’s initiative support and Republican districts across the state and they look a lot alike. Meanwhile, chances of the GOP’s running a serious campaign against Inslee all depend upon Eyman.
I am reminded of the 1990s adventures of Bill Sizemore, Oregon’s predecessor of Eyman, who had some success with tax-cut initiatives and wound up as the Republican candidate for governor in 1998, losing by a landslide to incumbent John Kitzhaber. Sizemore faced campaign-finance charges for a decade, and spent a short time in jail as a result. He did Oregon Republicans no favors.
While we watch Eyman’s candidacy strip-tease dance, legislators in both Washington and Oregon seek to deal with colleagues who have tapped to overflowing the anger and even violence that characterizes what serves as populism in today’s politics. Two Republican legislators, Matt Shea of Spokane Valley in eastern Washington and Brian Boquist of the mid-Willamette Valley of Oregon, have already lost some privileges and may face additional sanctions up to removal from office, a state equivalent of impeachment.
In both cases, the legislators have established a strong electoral base and won repeated elections against Democratic challengers. Both represent districts with strong rural populations that adjoin the large urban areas of Spokane and Portland. Republican senators, who hold the fate of their colleagues in their hands, are walking a very narrow pathway between expulsion, censure, and loss of privileges. Since some of these actions require a super-majority, the Democratic leaders of the senates in both states will need Republicans to take the strongest measures.
There is nothing bashful about Matt Shea. He is loud and aggressive and posts photos of himself with gun-waving supporters. An independent investigator hired by the Washington Legislature filed a report in December accusing him of “domestic terrorism” by supporting or helping organize several violent protests against governments, including the standoff at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon three years ago. Shea’s case has been forwarded to both the FBI and the federal prosecutor in eastern Washington, but neither office has stated that an investigation is underway.
Shea has been the most egregious in his flouting of political norms, but he may also be the toughest to dislodge from the Legislature, given his strong past vote totals. He appears, however, to have attracted an impressive Democratic challenger this year. Republicans will have to decide if they are better off with a censured Shea in office or an open seat to defend in November.
Shea’s District 4 adjoins Idaho’s Kootenai County, home of some of the most notorious far-right organizations, and the district has always been strongly conservative. Shea is openly linked to nationalist organizations, and the December investigative report revealed his activities were more widespread than previously known. “Incredibly disturbing,” was the reaction of one constituent, family nurse practitioner Lori Feagan, who plans to run against Shea as a Democrat. Feagan, 61, could be a formidable opponent. She is a 40-year resident of the district and fits the pattern Democrats have found helpful in deep-red congressional districts: candidates who are female, married, with backgrounds in the military or law-enforcement or nursing and medicine.
Feagan will have a tough route against a man who hasn’t had a close call in six election campaigns; Shea took 58.7 percent in 2018 and is already building a sizeable treasury with plenty of small donations. His base is solid. Feagan must attract voters embarrassed or frightened by Shea’s ties to violent and bombastic groups on the far right. Shea’s Republican colleagues have given Feagan some ammunition by ejecting him from the House GOP caucus and from committee assignments. He is figuratively a man with a vote but outside the house in terms of effectiveness. House Minority Leader J. T. Wilcox (R-Yelm) has urged Shea to resign.
Oregon Sen. Brian Boquist of Dallas does not have the close links to violent groups that Shea has, but is in trouble because of his own threats of personal violence. Boquist, described by one colleague as “a Special Forces guy” who is known to carry a legal weapon, has been ordered to give 12 hours’ notice to police before he enters the Capitol, where he is a voting member of the Senate.
Boquist’s trouble stems to a 2019 imbroglio in which 11 Republican senators boycotted the Senate to delay Democratic efforts to pass a climate-control measure. As the protest unrolled, Boquist became a focal figure as he appeared to threaten to shoot any state policeman who was sent to bring the Republicans back to the Capitol. He later told Senate President Peter Courtney, on the Senate floor, “If you send the state police to get me, hell’s coming to visit you personally.” That brought the 12-hour notice.
Prior to his 2019 notoriety, Boquist was primarily known as a conservative close to the business lobby, who had an Army career in Special Forces and combined work with consulting on military issues with his farm and forestry occupation. His district includes the heart of Oregon’s famed Pinot Noir wine country and includes or borders on two universities and two colleges. Its history is Republican, but growth will likely cause some major redistricting in 2021. No major Democratic contender has announced, and Boquist has won a steady 60 percent vote in three campaigns.
Boquist suffered a political as well as a legal defeat last week when a federal judge tossed out his lawsuit against Courtney and legislative leaders because of the 12-hour notice. U.S. District Court Judge Michael McShane described Boquist’s outburst as “those of a bully on the playground” that caused colleagues and staff to fear for their safety. Boquist continues to threaten legal actions.
Barring future collisions with his Senate colleagues, Boquist is not likely to face additional penalties, although Democrats are expected to target his district, which is much more diverse than Shea’s in Eastern Washington. First, however, he has bridges to repair with his colleagues in the Oregon Senate.