Westneat: Record numbers of challengers vie for election in 2018

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Danny Westneat is a columnist for the Seattle Times.

When Dorothy Gasque was running combat patrols in the Iraq war, she realized she was getting a unique perspective on her own country.

“I was looking in from the outside,” Gasque, now 37, says. “What I saw broke my heart.”

America didn’t look so grand. It was wasting trillions on war while its own quality of life was stagnating or even declining.

“I came home really disenchanted,” she says.

During the next decade, Gasque came to feel that what was really broken wasn’t our institutions of government, such as the military. It was politics. Corporatized, professionalized and polarized to the point of irrationality, Congress seemed at war over even the most minor problems.

Then Trump happened.

With even a few Republicans now starting to speak out in protest of President Donald Trump’s destructiveness, it feels like we’re at some sort of tipping point — as if the whole of democracy is fraying.

This Iraq war vet has been tipped right into a new sort of campaign: running for Congress herself.

“Trump is only a symptom of the problem,” Gasque said. “The battle is against a political system that makes a Trump presidency possible.”

Gasque, of Hazel Dell, is running in Washington’s 3rd District for Republican Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler’s seat. I called her because she is one of a record 19 congressional challengers in the state who have already filed for the 2018 election. At this point in the last federal election, there were only three “challenger”– non-incumbent — congressional candidates.

“People are angry and upset and can see that it’s not working,” said Democratic campaign consultant Christian Sinderman. “So they’re stepping forward to run in astonishing numbers.”

Only one of the 19 challengers is a Republican. That’s state Sen. Dino Rossi, vying to take over for retiring GOP Rep. Dave Reichert in the 8th District. Of the rest, 15 are Democrats and three are independents.

They are part of a national outpouring of mostly Democratic challengers trying to shake up politics. The Democrats have four to five times more challenger candidates right now than in any election of the past two decades, said Seth Masket, a professor of political science at the University of Denver. Most years the Republicans field more. So far this year, the Democrats have fielded 209 and Republicans just 28.

Here, Democrats already have challengers against every Republican House incumbent. In Vancouver, three Democrats, including Gasque, are lined up against Herrera Beutler. In Spokane, two Democrats are taking on Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers.

Some of these candidates are fast starters, too. Issaquah doctor Kim Schrier, in the 8th District, raised $273,000 in her first two months — despite never having run for any office before. Brown took in $224,000 in a month. Rossi, the lone Republican, raked in $579,000 in nine days.

Out of the norm

None of this is normal. The most any challenger had raised at this early point in the last election was $35,000. “It’s a national phenomenon,” Sinderman said. “Everybody is responding in a big way to Trump.”

“I think politics is changing — you can feel it,” says Gasque, a Bernie Sanders delegate in 2016 now running with the help of a Sanders-inspired organization, Brand New Congress.

Changing, yes, but which way? In this state, nobody is yet running a Steve Bannon-inspired attack candidacy from the right. But the seeds of it may be in Herrera Beutler’s district, where her moderate vote earlier this year against repealing Obamacare was dubbed a “complete betrayal” on some local conservative blogs.

All this early energy doesn’t mean any newcomers will win. Or that Congress will be less dysfunctional. Or that any of the Trumpian forces now despoiling the national democracy will be abated.

But it’s sure good to see people trying. If democracy’s going down, it might as well go down fighting.