If ever anyone has ever fit Aristotle’s definition of “man” as “a political animal,” Chris Vance is the guy.
Deep-dyed in conservative Republican politics since his days at Sumner High School in the late 1970s, he served two terms on the King County Council and is a former member of the Washington State Legislature.
Thrice elected chairman of the state party, Vance was the guy who took up the cudgels for Dino Rossi during the gubernatorial recount against Democrat Christine Gregoire, making him for a time the face and voice of the state GOP.
Now 58, Vance’s mind is as sharp as ever, stocked with information, evincing a granular awareness of what is happening at home and throughout the world.
Life at the Vance household, which recently relocated from Auburn to Sumner, he says, is good: their daughter is about to be married, their son is doing well and between his job as a political consultant and an employee of the King County Assessor’s Office and wife Ann Marie’s job with the Auburn School District, the family is well off.
But in the fall of 2017, precipitated by the GOP’s lurch toward the hard right and the unexpected and “catastrophic” election of Donald Trump as President of the United States, Vance said, he left the party he had loved so fiercely and for so long, becoming what he had never expected he’d be: a political animal sans party.
And a dirty name in party circles.
“The biggest shock of my adult life has been the Republican Party’s complete capitulation to Donald Trump. I never expected that,” Vance said. “And nobody, nobody, nobody in the party, no one except the base, supported Trump. It’s really important to understand that. No one, not the donors, no one saw this coming. When he became the nominee, what it revealed to me is how radically the base of the R party had changed.
“…My whole life, the big threats to freedom came from the left, from Soviet Communism, from liberals at home that wanted to create a government so big they couldn’t afford it. Now the threat is coming come from the far right, the fascist right. Look at the number of countries that are moving toward fascist, authoritarian-type systems, like Italy, Brazil, the Philippines, Great Britain with Brexit. Boris Johnson sounds like a fascist. It’s terrifying.”
Like other Republicans, Vance had expected 2016 to be a big year for the party, especially he said, after eight years of Barack Obama. He expected that the GOP would nominate Jeb Bush or some other mainstreamer for president. He believed the GOP would even have a sporting chance at beating incumbent Democratic Sen. Patty Murray.
“The state of Washington is not as Democratic as some people think it is, and her numbers weren’t that good. We thought it would be a big Republican year,” Vance explained of the optimism that prompted him to to run for that Senate seat
But all along, to Vance’s growing dismay and then alarm, Trump’s fortunes continued to rise.
“I said from the beginning, ‘If this guy gets the nomination, I can’t vote for him.’ I said that to top people in the party, and they responded privately, ‘Oh, don’t worry, he’ll never get it,’ ” Vance explained. “Right up until the Indiana primary, the moment when Ted Cruz and John Kasich dropped out, nobody thought he’d be the nominee.”
Vance said he soon realized he could not a viable candidate for the U.S. Senate without answering the, ‘Do you support Donald Trump’ question in the affirmative, which he could not do, and indeed, he said, any working member of the party who would not soon found him or herself out of a job.
“So, we had a press conference right away where I said I was not going vote for him. My campaign ended at that point. It was pretty much over at that point, anyway,” Vance said. “No Republican is going to win in Washington state with Trump at the top of the ticket. So my thinking was, all right, he’s going to lose, and he’s going to lose badly, and the Republicans are going to get crushed, and then people like me can step in and build something new.
“Then he won, which was the worst catastrophe possible,” Vance said.
The win, he said, convinced Republicans that Trump and his idea were the way to win.
“Oh my God, what do we do,” Vance asked.
Nevertheless, Vance would give the new president a chance. But within two weeks, his wait-and-see attitude ran into the buzzsaw of the president’s initial travel ban, which barred entrance to the United States of people from most Middle Eastern countries.
“When he came out with the initial Muslim ban, I realized that guy is going to do all the insane crap that he said he was going to do in his campaign. He is who he says he is,” Vance said.
Effort to introduce a new party
Vance spent the rest of 2017 looking for another place to hang his political hat, convinced, he said, that somewhere out there was a “rebel base” of people who felt as he did. He thought he’d found what he was looking for with The Centrist Project – later renamed United America – a national organization that was trying to build a political party for moderate independents to help them run for office. Late in 2017, he and former Democratic Congressman Brian Baird even formed a state chapter of the project called Washington Independents. But the effort did not go far.
Still a Republican, Vance said, he wrote articles for Cross Cut, the Seattle Times and other publications.
“By the fall of 2017, it had fully sunk in: I am out of step with the vast majority of Republicans,” ,” Vance said. “You shouldn’t be a member of a party you don’t agree with just for the label, the tribalism of it. That’s madness. When you go down the list of issues where the Republican party is and where Ronald Reagan and Slade Gorton were, you realize there’s no overlap on trade, immigration, on national defence, on foreign policy or on budgets and spending.”
Indeed, said Vance, whose hero is still Ronald Reagan, the party has shifted, radically. The party’s elites and its activists have been out of touch with the conservative base for a long time, he said.
“They have been waiting for Trump, they agree with him on demonizing the media, on trade. They are isolationists, they are protectionists and more than anything else, they are nativists. They’re really racists,” Vance said. “When you peel it all away, this entire era is about racism. It is about grumpy white people who look around at their communities and see change, and they don’t like it; they aren’t used to it. In Federal Way, half of the signs are in in Korean, and a quarter of them are in Spanish. People who bought their house in 1965 look around and they don’t see a lot of white faces anymore, and they don’t like it. I can’t count the number of times old white men came up during the campaign and said, ‘Chris, this just doesn’t feel like my country anymore.’
“This populist racist movement blames everything on immigrants and brown people, that is the Republican base. I can’t be part of that,” Vance said. “… I am scared, depressed, worried, almost hopeless about what is happening in this country and around the world because it’s a worldwide movement. The political order that we built after the Second World War is falling apart, and fascism is on the march all over the place, and it’s terrifying.”
In 2018, Vance said, the American people’s demonstrated lack of interest in electing independents convinced him that the way forward is a third party that actually stands for something distinct, something worth supporting, apart from the crazies on the extreme left or right. It has happened before, he noted, notably in the late 1850s, when the collapse of the Whig party led to the formation of the GOP.
“Unfortunately, no one agrees with me and no one is working on that now,” Vance said. “But they should be.”