Donnelly: Participation in caucus process affects results

On Saturday morning, Jan. 13, 2024, Washington’s Republican Party will hold its precinct caucuses, beginning a multistep process to choose its 43 delegates to the Republican National Convention in July.

Caucus participants need only be registered to vote and affirm they are Republicans in order to sit with neighbors to discuss the party platform and elect delegates to the county convention, to take place Feb. 3 at the Clark County Event Center at the Fairgrounds. There, state delegates will be elected. The state convention will be April 18-20 in Spokane to elect national delegates.

The caucus process is grass-roots constitutional governance at its most accessible. Soon thereafter, Republicans also vote in the state’s presidential primary on March 12. That outcome determines the proportionate vote of the state’s 43 national delegates on the first ballot.

Searching history for insights, we recall that in May 1860, the new Republican Party held its first national convention. The process of winnowing state delegations to choose the nominee for president was not substantially different from today’s.

As Republicans gathered in Chicago, New York Gov. William Seward was highly favored to receive the nomination, followed by Ohio Gov. Salmon Chase. But, as recounted in “The Lincoln Miracle: Inside the Republican Convention that Changed History” (Edward Achorn, 2023), an ambitious Republican lawyer from Illinois, Abraham Lincoln, saw an opportunity in a party deeply divided between the causes of abolition and preserving the Union.

Months in advance, Lincoln assembled a team of savvy allies, who after arriving in Chicago methodically gathered sufficient delegates eventually to nominate their compromise candidate. He used two widely acclaimed appearances — his 1858 debates with Senate candidate Stephen Douglas and his 1860 speech at New York’s Cooper Union — to craft a national reputation. He carefully positioned himself as the moderate, anti-slavery, pro-Union candidate who could unite his party and the nation.

Lincoln and his team departed the Chicago convention victorious. Elected president, he famously appointed his convention rivals to his Cabinet, laying the solid groundwork to save the Union and abolish slavery.

Now, as in those days, our system is undoubtedly circuitous. Yet delegate allocations are clearly spelled out. The step-by-step process to the national convention, starting in school gymnasiums, fosters a competition in which the expected outcome may be challenged. Above all, it empowers the individual with a unique freedom to participate.

Caucus-goers should know that Republican presidential contenders Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley are developing campaign organizations in Washington aimed at accumulating delegates at the caucuses, county conventions, and state convention. Donald Trump supporters will undoubtedly mount a strong caucus presence.

Nationally, the political landscape for 2024 remains contentious. Washington is not a pivotal early state as Iowa is, but at the national convention, every delegate counts, as each did for Lincoln.

Polls in Iowa and New Hampshire suggest that the combined voters favoring a candidate other than Trump may outnumber those favoring the former president. It behooves local Republicans on all sides of the party’s presidential contest to enter the fray on Jan. 13.

We cannot control the candidates, the debate outcomes, the media, or the vote counts. Yet each Republican is free to decide and to speak out accordingly at our precinct caucuses.

Ultimately, on the morning after our next president is elected, will we be able to say that we did all we could to influence the outcome?

Ann Donnelly, former chair of the Clark County Republican Party, is Clark County chair for Ron DeSantis for President.

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