Last weekend, former talk radio host Kirby Wilbur defeated incumbent state Republican Party Chairman Luke Esser. It was a bit of a surprise to those outside the party machinery because Esser doesn’t appear to have done anything that would anger the state committee, other than not winning as many races in November.
But what might just be an internal preference by the 117 state committee members has been expanded into a litmus test of the future of the party, the role of the tea party and the 2012 campaign for governor.
The gist of the speculation is whether it signals a feud between Wilbur and state Attorney General Rob McKenna who favored Esser or whether Wilbur will try to take attention from McKenna or force the party to right when McKenna needs to run from the middle to have a chance.
Without reaching a conclusion on such big issues, I do think it all raises some interesting issues. For example, Wilbur remains under investigation by the state Public Disclosure Commission for his failure to report the activities of Americans for Prosperity Washington.
I think the violations are serious, maybe not on par with the more-talked about Moxie Media case, but at least in the same file folder. They involve a failure to disclose contributions and expenditures until after the election as well as months and months of late files rather than a week.
Even now, Wilbur has not filed as a political committee which his group likely became when he started mailings against incumbent Democratic candidates. He says it was inadvertent, but so did Moxie Media’s Lisa MacLean until private e-mails were revealed by the PDC investigation.
The PDC will likely feel pressured to do what they did with Moxie – turn the case over to the attorney general who can seek much-higher fines than the PDC. McKenna would have to file suit against the state GOP chair or risk the accusation that he handled Kirby more gently than Moxie for partisan purposes. That wouldn’t reflect well on his moderate reputation.
But, should he decide to file suit, can he do it without accusations that he is retaliating for the defeat of his longtime friend and former employee Luke Esser? Would he then have to hire an outside special attorney general at at a time when state spending is always an issue?
I don’t think there’s that much difference between Esser and Wilbur politically. And I don’t see Wilbur as a bomb thrower but instead as a longtime GOP loyalist. But even if he doesn’t act in ways that harm McKenna’s chances, his presence as state chair raises awkward issues for the likely GOP nominee.