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News / Politics / Clark County Politics

Midterms will reveal Clark County’s true colors

Invigorated voters will decide whether politically purple Clark County is more violet or indigo

By Jake Thomas, Columbian political reporter, and
Katy Sword, Columbian politics reporter
Published: November 4, 2018, 6:05am
3 Photos
Vancouver residents Alan Pasternak, left, and Jim Walker encourage residents to vote while greeting motorists traveling south on Interstate 205 from the southeast 10th Street overpass Tuesday morning, Oct. 30, 2018.
Vancouver residents Alan Pasternak, left, and Jim Walker encourage residents to vote while greeting motorists traveling south on Interstate 205 from the southeast 10th Street overpass Tuesday morning, Oct. 30, 2018. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

On many mornings over the past two weeks, Jim Walker and Alan Pasternak have headed out before dawn in the cold and the rain with a message for Clark County commuters.

Standing on the Southeast 10th Street overpass of Interstate 205, the two Vancouver retirees held a sign reading, “VOTE like Your RIGHTS Depend on It!” On one morning last week, Walker said, volunteers for U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler beat them to a prime spot on the Evergreen Boulevard overpass.

Otherwise, they’ve been able to find places where they can urge people to use their right to vote in upcoming races for Congress, Clark County government, Vancouver City Council and others.

“I thought a woman was going to fall out of her car waving at me,” Pasternak said. “I only got flipped off once.”

As of Friday afternoon, about 39 percent of Clark County voters had turned in their ballots. The votes they cast will determine whether politically purple Clark County is more a shade of violet or indigo.

If you ask Cornell Clayton, director of the Thomas S. Foley Institute for Public Policy at Washington State University, the blue wave is coming. Historically, Clayton said, a midterm election in a president’s first term doesn’t favor the incumbent party. Typically, control in both the House and Senate switches. The Senate is less likely to go Democrat this year, he said, but the House is a sure bet.

“The only question is how many (seats),” Clayton said. “That’s going to come down to turnout.”

Higher voter turnout typically favors Democrats, and even though Republicans tend to vote later, Clayton said he expects this election to favor the left.

“(Clark County) is definitely a swing district in this election, I suspect,” he said.

Local parties optimistic

“Democrats are highly motivated; they’re going to turn out,” Clayton said. “The real question right now is the Republican turnout. Who knows what could happen in the next week given how polarized and crazy our politics are right now.”

David Gellatly, chair of the Clark County Republican Party, said he thinks the party will be there front-and-center come Election Day.

“I do not expect any type of blue wave when our country is clearly doing far better than it has in decades,” Gellatly said.

Locally, the Republican party has seen an increase in participation in activities such as doorbelling and sign waving, he said.

“Our office is slammed with walk-ins looking to help in several ways and the phones never stop ringing,” Gellatly added.

Rich Rogers, chair of the Clark County Democratic Party, would argue the same is true at his office.

“We’ve talked to a lot of people who previously identified as independent or Republican that have really taken a look at Democratic alternatives,” Rogers said. “Optimistically, we’re leaning blue.”

Rogers is hesitant to make any predictions after the 2016 election.

“We’re encountering a lot of frustration with all politics, whether it be at the county or at the White House,” he said. “The only way we can get people over that is voting and getting quality politicians into office.”

Predictably, both parties argue their candidates are superior, so it becomes a question of just what shade of purple Clark County will be.

Gellatly said he’ll be particularly interested to see if Republican county Councilor Jeanne Stewart’s “strong independent voice and leadership” will be enough to stave off a challenge from Democrat Temple Lentz in a recently created urban district that leans strongly toward Democrats.

“The 17th and 18th legislative districts certainly lean conservative and are ours to lose,” Gellatly said.

Perhaps a similarly difficult challenge awaits Democrat Tanisha Harris, who’s challenging first-term Republican state Rep. Vicki Kraft in the 17th Legislative District, considered a swing district. For the last few years, however, it’s been reliably red.

Harris’ supporters have knocked on more than 25,000 doors, she said. She recently held a campaign rally with both of the state’s Democratic U.S. senators.

“We have a great ground game,” Harris said.

State of the polls

No matter how much local parties and candidates want the election to be decided by local issues, polling shows national issues are unavoidable.

According to the Pew Research Center, a majority of voters say President Donald Trump will be a factor in how they vote. At a rate of six in 10 voters, the response is the highest ever since Pew began tracking the issue in 1982.

Voters also are more enthusiastic than usual, according to Pew’s findings. Furthermore, enthusiasm among voters supporting Democrats is up significantly compared with past midterm elections.

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The Elway Poll, a long-running Washington public opinion poll, found similar enthusiasm among Democrats. In a generic congressional race scenario, Democrats held a 10-point lead in Washington, according to the poll.

Polls of the 3rd Congressional District show the race is anyone’s to win.

An October poll conducted by The New York Times found Herrera Beutler leading 48 percent to 41 percent, with 12 percent of voters undecided and a nearly 5-point margin of error. The poll also revealed uncertainty regarding the attitudes of voters in the district. It found 47 percent of voters disapprove of how Trump is conducting his presidency, with 44 percent approving. However, 45 percent of respondents want Republicans to keep control of the House, whereas 44 percent say they want Democrats to retake the majority.

An earlier internal poll released by the Long campaign showed she was up by 2 points. Herrera Beutler’s campaign has said their internal polling shows otherwise, though their data has not been released to the public.

Congressional race

The 3rd Congressional District seat is one of three that could flip between parties. Currently, the Washington delegation consists of six Democrats and four Republicans in the House, and two Democrats in the Senate. And as the election draws nearer each day, both campaigns are shifting into high gear. Outside spending picked up significantly last week, with Herrera Beutler benefitting from more than $1.5 million in ad buys. Long also benefited from outside investment, which included $400,000 in ads lobbying against Herrera Beutler.

Given the sheer amount of fundraising on both sides — nearly $3 million apiece — it’s become nationally recognized that Herrera Beutler is facing the first well-backed challenge to her position since taking office in 2011. The advertising is largely negative or focused on refuting what the other candidate has said.

A normally routine issue became a focal point of this year’s race. The lack of town halls and debates between the two candidates continues to frustrate voters who not only want access to their representative but a chance to engage with the candidates side by side.

Each candidate’s stance on health care has also been questioned. Long argues in favor of improving the Affordable Care Act and considering a public health insurance option. Herrera Beutler opposes both concepts and instead suggests allowing residents to buy insurance from other states and expanding health savings accounts.

In the primary, Herrera Beutler was the top vote-getter with 42 percent of the vote. In a sea of seven candidates, Long netted 35 percent of the vote and won Clark County — the district’s most populous.

That margin energized the Democratic base in the district and drew national attention to the race. Between the primary election and now, Long has not only attracted national endorsements, including former President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, but national funding, as well. Many of the mailers sent to voters on Long’s behalf were paid for by the Washington State Democratic Central Committee or groups such as Planned Parenthood.

Herrera Beutler’s fliers, meanwhile, were paid for by the Washington State Republican Party and have appeared less frequently.

County chair

No Democrat has ever served on the Clark County Council, which was formed in 2015 after voters approved the county’s home rule charter. Democrats are hoping to add one or two members to the five-member council.

In the August primary, incumbent council chair Marc Boldt, who ran with no party preference, was defeated by Republican county Councilor Eileen Quiring and Democrat Eric Holt, a political newcomer.

Quiring maintains a steady fundraising lead at $50,871 to Holt’s $46,362. Holt has criticized the council as being too close to building and real estate interests. In October, the Building Industry Association of Clark County made an $8,500 expenditure on Quiring’s behalf.

As the race heated up, Quiring sent out a robocall to highlight her differences with Holt, as well as a mailer similar to one she used to criticize Boldt.

“Mr. Holt does not have a voting record, so I can’t pull up specific votes,” Quiring said. “But I can pull from specific exchanges he’s had so that people can look them up.”

Citing The Columbian’s candidate questionnaire, the mailer says Holt supports increasing the county’s total property tax levy by the 1 percent allowed under state law. It also claims Holt supports a “progressive state income tax,” which was not mentioned in the questionnaire. The flier highlights Quiring’s consistent opposition to any tax increase during her two years on the county council.

“If the people of Clark County can’t vote for me for the positive things I put forward, then I don’t want to be involved in politics,” Holt said.

The mailer also says Holt wants to restrict property rights and build light rail. Holt said those remarks are taken out of context. Quiring, of course, disagrees.

Increasing the county’s property tax levy, Holt said, means a few more dollars for the average property owner. He said it’s needed to pay for vital services, including the sheriff’s office, which also has been a funding priority for Quiring.

Quiring said she’s heard from single mothers and seniors on fixed incomes who have already been affected by this year’s state property tax hike to pay for education. She doesn’t want to further burden them, she said, adding that the county needs to prioritize its spending.

“It’s other people’s money,” Quiring said. “That’s how I view it, so I just want to be very careful.”

Holt took particular issue with Quiring’s characterization of his stance on industrial development along the Chelatchie Prairie Railroad in Brush Prairie. Quiring has been supportive of developing industrial sites near the underused rail line. For the last year, the county has been working on implementing a change to state law to allow freight-dependent businesses to set up there. In October, the council voted to put the process on hold until next year.

Holt has been skeptical that the project will produce good-paying jobs and says the county should instead try to attract high-wage technology jobs. He has also expressed concern about industrial development’s impact on neighbors, many of whom have vocally opposed it.

“She’s blatantly disregarding the private property rights of thousands of people to benefit a few people who stand to benefit from the project,” he said.

Quiring said she will oppose development of an asphalt plant in the area, which has been a concern of residents. She also said she’ll listen to opponents and that there will be buffering and other mitigation to preserve residents’ quality of life.

18th District

Rogers, of the Clark County Democrats, said the 18th Legislative District race will be a bellwether because Democrat Kathy Gillespie is poised to win a seat long held by the GOP. If other Democratic candidates do well, Rogers hopes this election will set a mandate for change.

In the August primary, Gillespie emerged with a thousand votes more than Republican Larry Hoff, suggesting that her energetic and well-funded campaign could overcome the district’s history.

“I’ve just seen a real uptick in energy, which is great to see because we’ve been campaigning for a long time,” Gillespie said.

Hoff, however, said his campaign has stepped up its efforts, as well. He was recently aided by an independent expenditure from Evergreen Progress, a Republican-affiliated group out of Kirkland that sent out a mailer stating “Kathy Gillespie’s loyalty is to her Seattle Party Bosses.”

Hoff was comfortable with the ad, he said, because an increased Democratic majority in Olympia would be friendlier for political interests in Seattle.

“We saw what happened this last legislative session, and a bigger majority would enhance that,” he said.

On Tuesday, it will all be in the hands of voters.

Columbian political reporter
Columbian politics reporter