OLYMPIA -- Washington Republican Attorney General Rob McKenna made his first big splash in the other "Washington" yesterday. State observers say it is unlikely to be his last.
McKenna appeared before the U.S. Supreme Court Wednesday, arguing the Washington state government's case against a provision that maintains the power of the state's trade unions. Washington has historically been a top-three state in terms of percentage of unionized workforce.
The Washington Supreme Court last year struck down a portion of a state initiative passed with 73 percent of the vote in 1993. That portion required unions to gain the permission of non-members who pay dues equivalents before allocating their money to political campaigns.
"It is important to recall that non-members are put in the position of having to take action to protect their own money only because government has authorized the union to collect compulsory fees in the first place," McKenna told the Supreme Court in the state's case against the Washington Education Association (WEA).
Taking on such a politically polarizing issue seems a risky move for a GOP attorney general -- who has moved towards the center since assuming office in 2004 -- in a Democrat-leaning state.
But University of Washington Professor of Political Science David Olson says that would be a mis-reading.
Olson described the case as one that will "nail the base" of state GOP voters because it gets "the red-meat juices flowing." And although it's likely to anger the trade-union base of Washington Democrats, Olson believes the case is likely to "fly below the radar screen" of most of the state's independent voters whom McKenna courts.
"McKenna has calculated that the net gain to his base from supporting this case is greater than his net loss of pro-union support," said Olson, who has been tracking McKenna's political career for the past 20 years since his days as student council president at the University of Washington.
After starting out in politics as a conservative Republican strongly influenced by Ronald Reagan, the 44-year-old McKenna has become more of a centrist since being elected attorney general, Olson noted. He is particularly well-liked by the Washington media for expanding freedom of information requirements on Washington government agencies, most popularly the court system.
McKenna also recently publicly celebrated court victories over Washington utility companies - generally considered Republican allies - that prevented them from raising rates on consumers.
Olson says the ambitious McKenna is likely using these popular actions to position himself for a future run at higher office. But he's more likely to stick with a second term at attorney general and keep his powder dry for the election after that, Olson believes, since defeated Republican gubernatorial candidate Dino Rossi has been given the state GOP nod for a second run in 2008.
"He's a relatively young guy and it fits his own agenda better not to run for governor or [U.S.] Senate in 2008," Olson said. "I expect him to run in 2012 when he'll be [better] positioned for higher office."
McKenna is one of only three Republicans to have been elected statewide out of a total of 11 executive offices in Washington state in recent years.