Ahead of Election Day, political observers were expecting a nail-biting congressional race in Southwest Washington.
Democrats had a champion in Carolyn Long, the constitutional law professor seeking the seat for the second time after running a competitive campaign in 2018. Internal polling from her team showed the candidates were 2 percentage points apart. Her campaign had raised $3.74 million, and multiple pundits had nudged the district toward the center, from a “Likely Republican” to a more flippable “Lean Republican” seat.
Then the results came in, and the district decidedly did not flip.
The polls were wrong. It was a blowout. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground, is headed for a sixth term after winning the 3rd Congressional District race by more than 54,000 votes, a margin of 13 percentage points. Long backslid from her midterm performance, and lost by around 8 more percentage points than in 2018.
It was an anticlimactic conclusion to a three-year battle. It could ultimately impact the dynamic of the 2022 midterm, depending on how redrawn congressional boundaries affect the 3rd District.
“They took a run at it in 2018, and again in 2020, you saw them spend millions of dollars and actually get worse results,” said Calem Heimlich, chair of the Washington State Republican Party. “I would anticipate that there is not the same appetite from Democrats to run in that district.”
A spokesperson for Long’s campaign didn’t respond to The Columbian’s request for comment Friday.
Enthusiasm for Herrera Beutler
Notably, President Donald Trump didn’t win the district by nearly as wide a margin. A few votes are still being tallied, but the president is currently polling around 51 percent in Southwest Washington.
Why the full embrace of Herrera Beutler, but the tepid tolerance of Trump?
Mark Stephan, associate professor of political science at Washington State University Vancouver, chalks up Herrera Beutler’s continued success in the district to two main factors: Her incumbency, and her ability to thread the needle between political moderates and conservative Trump supporters.
“She hasn’t alienated more middle-of-the-road types,” Stephan said. “She has done a very skilled job, honestly, of not rejecting the president or the party by any means… but doing it in a way that has helped her look somewhat independent-minded. At least in this district, I think that’s mattered.”
Washington’s 3rd District — and Herrera Beutler — is an anomaly. Going into 2020, the district was and remains the only district bordering the Pacific Ocean represented by a Republican in Washington, Oregon or California. Herrera Beutler has the additional distinction of being the only GOP woman of color in either chamber of Congress.
When it comes to Trump, Herrera Beutler has walked a tightrope. She publicly announced that she did not vote for him in 2016, citing his brash demeanor. She said she wrote in then-House Speaker Paul Ryan. This year, she announced that Trump had earned her vote.
According to political website FiveThirtyEight.com, Herrera Beutler votes with the president’s agenda 81.6 percent of the time. Only 14 of 197 House Republicans have lower scores.
Heimlich said Herrera Beutler’s success in the district relative to Trump is a testament to her deft political positioning.
“It shows that Congresswoman Herrera Beutler has done a really good job at representing the district, and that she was getting votes from independent voters,” Heimlich said. She is “appealing to swing voters, and even some soft Democrats.”
Stephan had another theory: The record turnout in the recent election was likely linked to Trump, who remains a polarizing, galvanizing force among both his supporters and his detractors. The people who turned up to vote against Trump probably just didn’t have the same fervor to unseat Herrera Beutler, especially among those more plugged into national politics than regional politics.
“There are voters who are happy or OK with the incumbent. They don’t feel strongly disconnected from the incumbent in terms of the congressional district,” Stephan said. “Maybe they do feel a sense of disconnect with the presidential candidate.”
Heimlich said he believes polling that showed Long trailing Herrera Beutler by just 2 percentage points failed to assess the enthusiasm for Republicans turning out in the district. He added that it’s likely there will be “a broad conversation about polling going forward” across the country.
He thinks the most reliable voter data is gathered in the August primary, he said. Herrera Beutler won that race by 16 points.
“With our top-two primary, that is a pretty predictive vote,” Heimlich said. “Five out of every eight voters was voting in August. That’s a pretty large sample size, in terms of a poll.”
Future for Democrats
A spokesperson for the Washington State Democratic Party didn’t respond to The Columbian’s requests for comment Thursday and Friday.
Heimlich said he thinks it’s unlikely that Democrats will see the same enthusiasm for their candidate in 2022 as they did with Long in 2018 and 2020.
“I think the Democrats would be foolish to continue spending money in the 3rd Congressional District,” he said.
Heimlich’s assertion rests on the assumption that the scheduled 2021 redrawing of the state’s congressional map won’t materially change the makeup of voters in the district. The last redraw, in 2011, removed liberal neighborhoods of Thurston County and shifted the boundaries of the district to the east. As a result, it turned from a true swing district to a relatively safe haven for Republicans. A shift in the opposite direction isn’t off the table next year.
According to Stephan, the district as it’s currently drawn still isn’t a lost cause for Democrats. But it will be hard for a challenger to overcome Herrera Beutler’s incumbency advantage, he acknowledged.
Incumbency creates a buffer for both Republicans and Democrats, he said, so that even if the voters shift broadly away from their party, the representative can hold on.
“At least in the immediate future, it looks like it’s going to be a bit of a climb for Democrats to win in the third district,” Stephan said. “If (Herrera Beutler) steps away, I think the district becomes really up in the air in terms of which party can win it.”