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January 18, 2011 at 7:00 AM

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Tussle at the top for state GOP?

Posted by Jim Brunner

Last week, the Republican National Committee dumped Michael Steele as chairman in favor of Wisconsin GOP Chairman Reince Priebus.

This weekend, it could be the Washington State GOP's turn to make a change at the top.

State Republican Chairman Luke Esser doesn't have a history of gaffes like Steele.

But Esser does have critics who argue Washington Republicans didn't win as many races as they should have during the November elections.

Former radio talk show host Kirby Wilbur is campaigning vigorously to unseat Esser at the state committee meeting Saturday in SeaTac.

At least two others have also announced challenges to Esser: Curt Fackler, the former Spokane County Republican chairman, and Bill Rennie, a retired Army officer from Puyallup.

One undercurrent in the leadership fight is the involvement of Attorney General Rob McKenna, who has been campaigning on Esser's behalf.

The two are longtime friends and McKenna, widely seen as the GOP frontrunner for governor in 2012, is pushing to keep his guy in place. Esser, a former state legislator, is seeking his third, two-year term.

If Republican activists reject McKenna's advice, it could signal he won't be in for a smooth ride in the 2012 primary.

This is retail politics at its grittiest. There are only 117 people who get to vote - the leaders of the various county Republican organizations. A simple majority is needed to win.

Those delegates are getting plenty of calls and visits from the rival camps ahead of Saturday's showdown.

Esser said he's happy to have McKenna's backing, but knows he has to make the case for re-election himself. He seemed confident in an interview Saturday.

"I know I'm doing very well. I know I'm ahead. But I've been in close races before and you always have to run like it's a close race," Esser said.

Wilbur told me he feels pretty confident he can make it a close fight - though he stopped short of predicting a win.

"There was a lot of disappointment about how poorly we did in November," Wilbur said, arguing Republicans got badly beat in get-out-the-vote efforts that swayed several important races.

"If we approach 2012 like 2010, we're in big trouble," Wilbur added.

Esser has defended the Republican efforts under his watch, noting the party picked up a U.S. House seat and several legislative seats in November.

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Jim Brunner
Covers politics.

Keith Ervin
Covers the Eastside.

Andrew Garber
Covers politics and state government from Olympia.

Emily Heffter
Covers local government.

Mike Lindblom
Covers transportation.

Kyung Song
Covers politics and regional issues from Washington, D.C.

Lynn Thompson
Covers Seattle City Hall.

Bob Young
Covers King County and urban affairs.