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Originally published Thursday, March 21, 2013 at 3:58 PM

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Some advice for empathy-challenged Washington state Republicans

Republicans in Washington state have lost eight straight races for governor and six for the U.S. Senate. Washington state has not gone for a Republican president since 1984. Where did the party of Abraham Lincoln go wrong?

Times editorial columnist

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When I moved from the East Coast to Seattle in the mid-1990s, the face of the King County Republican Party was Nona Brazier, a Bellevue businesswoman. That she was African American was a pleasant surprise.

Brazier served a term ably but went no further politically. Her story resembles that of Michael Steele, a once-rising star in the GOP who now mainly gives his party an air of diversity on news talk shows.

I’m reminded of them as the Republican National Committee follows its postelection autopsy with a 100-page report on how to avoid getting killed at the polls in the future, and with a $10 million outreach plan targeting black, Asian and Hispanic voters

There are fissures in the Democratic Party worth exploiting. Democrats too often come across as patronizing know-it-alls. Think Al Gore — cubed. Their allegiance to the teachers unions has not improved public education for minority schoolchildren.

But the GOP comes across as the party lacking empathy.

If Democrats are the sugar party, Republicans are the dentist party. And I discovered on that people do not dislike their dentists, they dislike what their dentist does to them.

If the GOP wants to be more inclusive, it has to own how its policies affect all people, not just a rarefied few. This introspection is already happening on a national level, and it serves a useful purpose locally.

Few disagree with basic Republican tenets around limited government, fiscally responsible budgets and economic growth. Those principles were invoked by Democratic President Bill Clinton when he teamed up with a Republican Congress and fostered a booming economy, low unemployment rates and budget surpluses.

The task for Republicans is to change their tone, particularly about government budgets. Families do understand the need for revenue. Workers ponder higher-paying jobs and secondary incomes. Needing more money can be a matter of survival, not poor prioritizing. So let’s talk about the smartest, most equitable, sources of revenue.

Republicans should also be more empathetic about illegal immigration.

“People crossing the Rio Grande at night are not coming here to sit on welfare or get better food stamps, they’re coming here to have a better life,” says state Republican Party Chairman Kirby Wilbur.

Indeed, the Republican-leaning Majority Coalition in the Senate should follow the House’s lead and pass the state version of the Dream Act.

For the record, Wilbur, a former conservative radio host, supports undocumented students applying for State Need Grants. The K-12 system educates all children regardless of citizenship.

“ If (Washington) is going to be compelled to provide a K-12 education to these children, most of whom were brought here by their parents, I think it only makes sense that we provide them a chance to continue their education into college and make something of themselves,” Wilbur says.

Progressive. Yet, the party has lost eight straight races for governor and six for the U.S. Senate. Washington state has not gone for a Republican president since 1984.

Reversing that trend through outreach to communities of color won’t be easy. Minority conservatives are as closeted as gays used to be. They are leery of a politically stratified public forcing them to choose between their cultural identity and their party. Colin Powell is one of the few African Americans accepted as a black man and a Republican. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas? Not so much.

Where did the party of Abraham Lincoln go wrong?

After all, it was Democrats in the South who used violence and intimidation to prop up racial segregation, including poll taxes and literacy laws. By token, Republican presidents Calvin Coolidge and Warren Harding pushed hard for anti-lynching laws. Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt later opposed similar efforts to keep Southern support.

Republican President Dwight Eisenhower sent in federal troops to protect students in Little Rock, Ark. Eisenhower did so only after pleading from Martin Luther King Jr. And the GOP is home to Willie Horton-style campaign tactics and birthers who argue, still, that President Obama is not an American.

“It's a mixed and spotty record, ” Wilbur acknowledges. No kidding.

Lynne K. Varner's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her email address is lvarner@seattletimes.comFollow her on Twitter @lkvarner

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