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Oct. 25, 2020

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Clark County’s District 3 race an ideological showdown

Republican Bowerman seen to have edge, but Democrat James’ stance on COVID-19 response, vigorous campaigning may attract Blom’s supporters, others

By , Columbian county government and small cities reporter
Published:
3 Photos
Karen Bowerman, left, and Jesse James are candidates for the Clark County Council District 3 race.
Karen Bowerman, left, and Jesse James are candidates for the Clark County Council District 3 race. (Provided photos) Photo Gallery

A local race between ideological foils will likely hinge on which candidate can court moderate voters, despite a decidedly partisan primary election that unseated an incumbent with more spending power.

Karen Bowerman, a Republican and staunch conservative, and Jesse James, a Democrat and Bernie Sanders-style liberal, will appear on the Nov. 3 general election ballot for Clark County Council District 3. The candidates advanced after defeating moderate incumbent Councilor John Blom, a former Republican who ran without a party affiliation in the Aug. 4 primary election.

Political observers say the remaining candidates’ party affiliations were key to overcoming Blom’s incumbency advantage and comfortable fundraising lead.

“One sort of obvious thing for me is independents are always going to have a tough time in primaries when they’re running against people from two different parties,” said Mark Stephan, an associate professor of political science at Washington State University Vancouver. “I think, these days, partisanship has become so overwhelmingly potent as the indicator.”

The race will be decided only by voters within the district, which covers east Vancouver. But it will determine whether the five-member council maintains a current majority voting bloc of Democrats and moderate Republicans or leans in a more conservative direction.

Based on the primary election results, Bowerman has the clear advantage.

She captured the highest percentage of the vote — 44.3 percent. James finished with 33.9 percent. Bowerman won 56 of 70 precincts in the district and finished third in only one of them.

Stephan noted that general elections tend to draw more moderate voters. In this race, that especially includes those who voted for Blom or stayed home for the primary.

“There’s a narrative to find here that can coax voters in the general electorate who didn’t vote in the primary to vote for them,” Stephan said.

A critical decision

With just a few hours left before the May 15 filing deadline, Blom became the first candidate in the race as he filed for reelection, followed quickly by Bowerman and James. Bowerman later said that she entered the race after not seeing a Republican entry.

Blom ended the primary with 21.57 percent of the vote share and didn’t win any precincts. Political experts describe the decision to run unaffiliated as central to his defeat.

“People were just kind of, like, shocked that (Blom) didn’t win,” local political consultant Jim Mains said. “You have a strong Republican and strong Democratic candidate and he just got lost in the middle.”

Mains has worked as a consultant for Blom’s campaigns. He also aided former Clark County Chair Marc Boldt, once a Republican who successfully ran in 2015 as an unaffiliated candidate but subsequently lost a reelection bid in the 2018 primary.

Mains attributed Boldt’s success in 2015 to polarizing views among voters toward one of his opponents — then-Councilor David Madore, a Republican. But overall, he said, nonaffiliated candidates typically have a difficult time succeeding.

“Considering the divisiveness right now, especially on the national level, the primaries tend to bring out your strong Republican and Democratic voters,” Mains said. “It’s very hard to see a moderate candidate move on in that dynamic.”

Mains said that Blom’s stated desire to have the position represented by a nonpartisan councilor, as well as his tense history with the local GOP — of which Bowerman’s husband, Earl Bowerman, is the chair — ultimately outweighed the strategic risk.

“John kind of knew going in that it would be a little bit of a battle this year,” Mains said. “He’s really struggled with his party affiliation, and I think that really led to that decision and why it took so long to get to that decision.”

Blom declined to comment for this story.

Mains said that local members of both parties were “scrambling” to figure out how, or whether, to mount a challenge against Blom leading up to the filing deadline.

“I think John would have easily won the primary as a Republican or even as a Democrat, especially this year with the partisan nature of the election,” Mains said. “But he really felt like this is where the county needs to move, to get the partisan stuff out of county politics.”

But should an incumbent candidate decide to run unaffiliated, it’d behoove him or her to announce the switch early in a given term in office, Stephan said. Admitting that it was speculation, Stephan said that such a move might have kept James from entering the race.

“If they’ve got enough time in office to build up credibility as an independent, they’re able to make inroads with members of the other parties,” Stephan said. “(Blom is) not going to get all of those Republican votes, but he’ll get some who support him individually and some Democrats who say he’s better.”

Effects of COVID-19

But now James is in the race, and Blom isn’t. So, how does James pick up those votes?

“If there’s any indication that James wants to reach out to moderates or independents, that’s really going to help,” Stephan said.

In the primary election race, James focused on issues like climate change and overhauling the county’s response to mental health crises.

With one month left, James appears to have picked an issue widely seen as the No. 1 priority in this election cycle: the COVID-19 pandemic.

James repeatedly mentioned the issue during a conversation Sept. 24, one day after Clark County Council Chair Eileen Quiring O’Brien, who also chairs the Clark County Board of Health, questioned the scientific consensus of wearing masks as a way to reduce the spread of the virus. Quiring O’Brien later said she believes in the effectiveness of masks.

“These people sit on the Board of Health. This is why we’re in this pandemic and other nations and other communities have been able to get past this. They’re not leading by example, or they’re leading poorly by example,” James said. “I’m concerned that (Bowerman) might have the same feeling toward science and data.”

Blom, meanwhile, said last week that it is “100 percent” proven that masks curb the spread of the virus.

“When it comes to things right now like the coronavirus, (Blom) is dead-on,” James said. “I hope that his supporters will see that in me.”

During the primary election, Bowerman repeatedly said she does not support the council’s annual option of taking a 1 percent increase in tax collections, the largest allowed under state law, for the county’s general and road funds. She also said she would vote to maintain the Clark County Sheriff’s Office budget and support a third bridge over the Columbia River.

When reached by phone, Bowerman declined to answer how she plans to reach voters who didn’t participate in the primary election or who voted for Blom. She cited a displeasure with The Columbian’s news coverage of the race but, when asked, declined to offer specifics.

Fundraising

As of Tuesday afternoon, Bowerman had raised $35,317.71 in cash and in-kind contributions to James’ $13,610.11.

During the primary, James selected the state’s mini-reporting option, meaning he had a $5,000 fundraising and spending limit and couldn’t accept more than $500 from any individual donor. James said he spent about $1,500 in the primary election but that “the stakes are going to have to be raised for the general campaign.”

James said he doesn’t expect to match Bowerman’s fundraising. He said, though, that he has placed more signs around town and has more volunteers leaving campaign mailers on front doors.

“I think to pull it off, he has to become very visible in the COVID world,” Mains said. “We’ve actually heard that because of COVID and because people are home, people are reading the mailers more.”

Bowerman, meanwhile, received a boost in late September from an influential organization.

The Building Industry Association of Clark County, which previously supported Blom, announced that it is endorsing Bowerman. The association’s political action committee also donated $1,000 to her campaign.

Endorsements could also have a more noticeable effect in this election cycle, Mains said. “In this time, I think endorsements are important, because people aren’t out as much.”

Trump’s coattails

If James does win the election, it wouldn’t be without precedent.

After his unsuccessful bid against Boldt for the council chair position the previous year, Madore ran for re-election in 2016 in District 3. He faced Blom and Democrat Tanisha Harris in the primary election.

Harris finished on top in the primary with 45.31 percent of the vote. Blom only earned 30.3 percent but outpolled the more conservative Madore.

When the top-two finishers faced off in the general election, Blom narrowly defeated Harris with 51.17 percent of the vote.

Political observers say that, in addition to the influence of a more moderate electorate, voters this year will also align their choices in the presidential election with down-ballot candidates from the same party.

“If there’s a major blue wave, as everyone’s talking about, I could see Jesse James get carried in,” Mains said.

Whether any such wave hits Clark County, or District 3, is unclear.

A “purple district” that can swing both ways, the county voted for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton with 46.34 percent of votes in the 2016 presidential election, with President Donald Trump garnering 46.18 percent.

District 3 largely follows the purple pattern, with residents in northern precincts generally trending more conservative.

Stephan noted the “very clear difference between these two candidates that are left in the race,” also saying the results of the presidential election will likely play a large role.

“It suggests a little bit of a muddled picture,” Stephan said. “The likelihood when this is said and done is that this is going to be won by Bowerman. But I’m not going to bet on that.”

Columbian county government and small cities reporter
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