In two weeks, there is an outside possibility that Republican Tiffany Smiley defeats Democrat Patty Murray for reelection in my state of Washington in the best opportunity they have had for a Senate seat since 2010. If this happens, it would be the first time the state has elected a Republican senator since 1994. The last one, Thomas Slade Gorton III (1928-2020), lost reelection in 2000. This brings me to my topic for today, what sort of Republican was Washington willing to elect to the Senate three times in living memory?
Gorton first began to participate in politics as a young attorney by joining the Washington Young Republicans in 1956. He got elected to the state legislature in 1958 and served for ten years. In this capacity, he gained a solid reputation as a legislator of integrity. This propelled him to higher office.
Attorney General of Washington
In 1968, Gorton was elected Washington’s attorney general, and he became quite popular. He pursued a moderately environmental course and pushed for warning labels on cigarette packages. In 1977, Gorton was successful in getting the Mariners to join the American League as an expansion team. The state of Washington hadn’t had an MLB team since the Pilots left in 1970.
Taking Down a Giant
In 1980, Gorton decided the time was right to challenge Senator Warren Magnuson for reelection. Magnuson had first been elected to Congress in 1936 and had served as a senator since 1944 and had numerous accomplishments under his belt, including preventing oil supertankers from traveling in Puget Sound and diverting a disproportionate share of federal money to the state. He had been reelected in 1974 by 24 points. However, 1980 was different. Magnuson wasn’t aging well, and people noticed. He was at this point heavy-set and was suffering from diabetes. President Jimmy Carter also wasn’t popular in Washington…he had lost the state to Gerald Ford in 1976. Reagan’s landslide election helping matters, the popular Gorton defeated Magnuson by almost eight points.
Gorton in First Term
Slade Gorton was, although a supporter on the meat and potatoes issues of Reagan Republicans such as lower taxes and less government regulation, he was also independent in numerous ways. He was a social moderate who opposed school busing but also opposed a school prayer amendment and the Hatch-Eagleton Human Life Amendment. However, later in his career, he would take a more pro-life stand, voting against funding abortions, voting to ban “partial-birth abortions”, and opposing a resolution stating the sense of the Senate that Roe v. Wade (1973) was properly decided. However, he did make an exception for permitting abortions on military bases. Although in 1982 he opposed a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution he would support later versions. Gorton also supported retaining a Washington D.C. law prohibiting insurance companies from discriminating against AIDS sufferers. Gorton also broke with Reagan by voting for South Africa sanctions and granted the Reagan Administration his support for conservative judge Daniel Manion in exchange for a court nomination of a Seattle liberal. During his time in politics, Slade’s names included “Slade the Blade”, “Slippery Slade”, “The new General Custer”, and “The Darth Vader of Northwest Politics” (Secretary of State).
Temporary Setback and Comeback
Gorton did have some PR issues as he was often perceived as cold and not personable. As political science professor Vernon Johnson said of him, “He’s always had high negatives because of his personal style. He’s viewed as being arrogant” (Steubner). In 1986, the Republicans were facing a tough midterm, and Gorton had attracted a strong opponent in former Secretary of Transportation Brock Adams. Both men were regarded as highly qualified for office and both ran nasty campaigns against each other, but the Democratic energy of the midterms carried the day for Adams, with him prevailing by two points. Initially, Slade decided that this was it and his political career was ended there. However, the call of politics was too tempting for him, and he ran for the Senate again in 1988 to succeed the retiring Daniel J. Evans. His opponent was Seattle’s Congressman Mike Lowry, and as part of his campaign did something risky and interesting: renounced two of his previous stances. He called his initial support for the Contras a mistake as well as his opposition to increasing Social Security benefits (The New York Times). This approach actually worked and again was elected to the Senate with 51% of the vote. This was particularly impressive given that the state that year narrowly voted in the presidential election for Democrat Mike Dukakis.
Senator Microsoft and Saving the Mariners
Gorton was a strong advocate for the industries of Washington, including logging, mining, Boeing, and tech. His advocacy for Microsoft was such that he became known as “Senator Microsoft”. When the company was facing antitrust litigation in the late 1990s he denounced it. He also led the effort to keep the Mariners in Seattle by organizing a local group to buy the franchise and since 1999 their home has been at the T-Mobile Park.
Relations with Indian Tribes
Slade Gorton was considered by many Indians to be one of their staunchest foes as he had butted heads with them on the concept of tribal sovereignty. This conflict started in the 1970s when as attorney general he had fought the extent of their fishing rights. He was also a strong opponent of tribal immunity, and he believed that activities on tribal land should be subjected to not just tribal court but state and federal courts as well. Many Indians thought of him as S’Klallam chairman W. Ron Allen did, “He just wants to keep tribal governments weak. His efforts to redistribute the wealth [through a proposed tax] was really trying to keep all of the tribes equally poor” (Steubner). Naturally, Senator Slade did not agree with this assessment. His spokeswoman, Cynthia Bergman, said on his perspective, “Gorton’s fundamental philosophy on all tribal issues comes down to this: Indian tribes have the right to govern their own affairs, they just don’t have the right to govern the affairs of non-Indians” (Steubner). As a senator, Gorton did provide funding for Indian schools and for other matters relating to them.
Gorton on the Environment
Slade Gorton had a mixed record on environmental issues, with him being more favorable to such causes in his first term than in his last two terms. During his last term, Gorton sponsored a bill to roll back the Endangered Species Act that had been drafted by lobbyists. By the 1990s, the Sierra Club was interested in defeating him.
Probably his most conservative term was his third, in which he was often in opposition to the Clinton Administration. He made exceptions in his conservatism for backing some union-supported measures, such as retaining Davis-Bacon wages. On the Clinton impeachment, Gorton voted for the obstruction of justice charge but against the perjury charge. In 2000, he was opposed by former Representative Maria Cantwell, who received a lot of money and support from Indian tribes. As W. Ron Allen, the chairman of the Jamestown S’Klallam tribe said, “We don’t have anywhere near the power of industry or labor or the environmentalists, but the fact is, we’re starting to play the game. We’ve got money and we’ve got votes, and we’re going to deliver” (Steubner). The election in Washington was the closest in the state’s history, the closeness being similar to the presidential election. There was a recount, but Cantwell ultimately prevailed by 2,229 votes. Gorton had ultimately lost due to a united front of opposition from tribes. He had overall been a moderate conservative, getting a 68% American Conservative Union life score and a DW-Nominate score of 0.271.
The 9/11 Commission and Last Years
Gorton’s public service hadn’t concluded with his defeat, after the September 11th attacks
he was one of the people selected to serve on the 9/11 Commission. His approach, and that of the other commissioners, was described by him, “We decided implicitly from the very beginning that if we couldn’t reach a unanimous decision on the past, we were going to be a failure. And the way to reach a unanimous decision was not to express opinions. So we wrote a totally factual history” (O’Brien). This approach, although it produced a result acceptable to the American people, the commissioners were critical of members of the Bush Administration on their cooperation. Although President Bush himself was candid, others issued contradictory statements to the extent that they considered investigating some of these people for obstruction of justice. Gorton in particular blamed Attorney General Alberto Gonzales for issues the 9/11 Commission had with the Bush Administration. The Committee ultimately concluded that both the Clinton and Bush Administrations had been poorly served by the FBI and CIA, which had failed to spot the incoming terrorist threat.
During his final years, Gorton opposed the rise of Donald Trump and in 2019 supported efforts to impeach him for his conduct with Ukraine but remained a Republican until his dying day (Santos). He supported working within the party rather than outside for change, as he still retained some conservative views.
Mariners Statement on the Passing of Slade Gorton. Mariners PR.
McFadden, R.D. (2020, August 19). Slade Gorton, Who Was Voted Out of the Senate and Then Back In, Dies at 92. The New York Times.
O’Brien, S.V. (2021, September 13). Slade Gorton & The 9/11 Commission: A Unity of Purpose. Washington State Wire.
Oldham, K. (2003, October 14). Magnuson, Warren. HistoryLink.
Slade Gorton: A Half Century in Politics. Washington Secretary of State.
Santos, M. (2020, August 25). Reflecting on Slade Gorton and his era of conservative politics. Crosscut.
Steubner, S. (2000, October 23). Stalking Slade. High Country News.