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Wednesday, February 21, 2024
Feb. 21, 2024

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In Southwest Washington, a far-right clash tests power of Trump’s endorsement in race for Congress


LONGVIEW — At a recent evening campaign town hall, Republican candidate Joe Kent rattled off his Day 1 priorities if he’s elected to Congress.

Impeach Joe Biden. Impeach Kamala Harris. Maybe install Donald Trump — or one of his children — as Speaker of the House.

The fantastical scenario played well with the couple of dozen Republicans at the event in a nondescript real estate office meeting room.

Kent admitted the odds of his plan succeeding are slim. But obstruction and revenge are the point. “In a lot of ways the process is the punishment,” he said. “That’s what they did with Trump. We’ll do it to them.”

An ex-Green Beret combat veteran and Gold Star husband, Kent is the Trump-endorsed challenger looking to oust U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler in the 2022 midterm election, in retribution for her impeachment vote last year.

The race for Congress in Southwest Washington’s 3rd District — with Kent echoing Trump’s false claims that the 2020 presidential election was stolen and defending people arrested in the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol assault as “political prisoners” — is among the closely watched contests around the country that will test Trump’s continued hold over the Republican Party.

While the ex-president remains popular with much of the GOP base, there are signs his influence may be fading, with some of his picks faltering in other states. In the 3rd District, a mashup of rural counties and fast-growing suburbs across the river from Portland, Trump’s early endorsement of Kent in September has brought him attention and a fundraiser at Mar-a-Lago.

But Herrera Beutler has retained support from some local Republican leaders. And Trump’s endorsement of Kent so far has failed to clear the field of other GOP challengers running to Herrera Beutler’s right.

Heidi St. John, a Christian author and home-schooling advocate, reneged on a pledge to support whomever Trump endorsed and is running an aggressive campaign attacking Kent as a carpetbagger who was previously a registered Democrat in Portland. State Rep. Vicki Kraft, R-Vancouver, who also has floated baseless 2020 election conspiracy theories, jumped into the race in late November, but has not yet been as visible a campaigner.

The trio of Republican challengers competing for the same voters may benefit Herrera Beutler, who is seeking a seventh term despite widespread condemnation of her impeachment vote by Republican Party organizations in her district.

A rising star in pro-Trump circles, Kent has become a regular guest on Fox News and other conservative media outlets. He’s been feted at East Coast fundraisers and campaigned with some of the most far-right members of Congress, including Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Matt Gaetz of Florida.

Kent is waging an “America First” campaign marked by fealty to Trump and resentment of Democratic and Republican elites. In addition to calling for probes of the 2020 election, he says Congress should investigate Anthony Fauci over COVID-19’s origins. He supports a near-total shutdown of immigration to the U.S. — including barring refugees fleeing Ukraine. Earlier this month, he called Vladimir Putin’s demands that Ukraine cede territory to Russia “very reasonable.”

Though they’ve received less attention, two first-time Democratic candidates, Brent Hennrich and Marie Perez, are also campaigning for the 3rd District seat. In the Aug. 2 primary, the two candidates who receive the most votes, regardless of party, will advance to the Nov. 8 general election.

The 3rd District covers Southwest Washington near the Oregon border, including Pacific, Wahkiakum, Cowlitz, Lewis, Skamania and Clark counties, along with a slice of southern Thurston County. The bulk of its residents live in the fast-growing Vancouver area of Clark County. The district leans Republican, but only narrowly backed Trump in 2020, with Herrera Beutler outpolling him by several percentage points.

Impeachment vote

Herrera Beutler and fellow Washington Rep. Dan Newhouse grabbed national attention last year as two of 10 House Republicans who joined with Democrats to impeach Trump over his stoking of the Jan. 6 Capitol violence by a mob of his supporters bent on stopping certification of the 2020 election.

Yet as she runs for reelection, Herrera Beutler is not seeking the national spotlight, instead emphasizing her day-to-day work as an incumbent representative who understands local needs and brings home federal dollars.

The same day of Kent’s Longview town hall, Herrera Beutler toured a clinic providing free medical and dental care for low-income residents in Battle Ground, the Vancouver suburb where she grew up and still lives.

Herrera Beutler obtained a $320,000 earmark for the clinic, Battle Ground HealthCare, in the $1.5 trillion omnibus spending package approved by Congress in mid-March. As a member of the House Appropriations Committee, she secured more than $6 million in earmarks for local projects this year.

In an interview outside the clinic, Herrera Beutler said that despite media fascination with her clash with Trump, she’s not fixated on the former president. Voters in her district, she says, are more concerned about inflation, restoring salmon runs and a new Interstate 5 bridge over the Columbia River.

“I still don’t see Donald Trump through an emotional lens. I don’t think about him when I wake up. I don’t think about him when I go to my clinic. Right? I think about him when reporters say your race is going to be nationalized and this is a great story and let’s talk about it,” she said. “But I think people here, what people care about, excuse my language, is do I get [expletive] done.”

Herrera Beutler, 43, has spent her adult life in politics. She worked as an aide to U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and served three years in the state Legislature before winning election to Congress in 2010 at age 31.

Like some other congressional Republicans, Herrera Beutler has had a mixed history with Trump. She didn’t support him in 2016, saying she wrote in former House Speaker Paul Ryan for president. But she publicly came around to vote for Trump in 2020, earning attacks from her Democratic challenger at the time, political science professor Carolyn Long.

On Jan. 6, 2021, when angry pro-Trump demonstrators stormed the Capitol, Herrera Beutler was in the House chamber as they smashed windows and pounded on the door. “It wasn’t a group of prayerful protesters. These people were in a mob mentality,” she said.

She recalled passing by Capitol Police officers injured and in shock, saying “they looked like they just came off a battleground.” In voting for impeachment one week later, Herrera Beutler said Trump “incited a riot” to halt “the peaceful transfer of power” and let hours pass before issuing a “pathetic” denunciation of the violence.

“I knew the backlash was going to be severe. I had law enforcement in front of our house. It was very serious,” Herrera Beutler said in the interview.

Lingering resentment over the impeachment is evident in the yard signs sprouting for her challengers more than four months ahead of the primary.

Jack Schiefelbein counts himself among the voters who feel betrayed. He’s the longtime owner of Electro Technologies, a heavy construction equipment company in Battle Ground. Large banners on the business’s corrugated metal walls proclaim “Trump 2024” and “Pro America, Anti-Biden” alongside Joe Kent signs.

On the afternoon of Herrera Beutler’s medical clinic tour, Schiefelbein and several associates were sipping whiskey in his ramshackle office adorned with motorcycle racing photos, an enormous elk head and a life-size carved wooden Jesus on a crucifix.

Schiefelbein, 76, said he liked Trump’s willingness to stand up for U.S. manufacturers. He rejected ever supporting Herrera Beutler again. “I know her. I backed her up before, but I’m done. She went against Trump. That took care of me. I didn’t like that,” he said.

Still, some local Republican elected leaders and party officials say they support Herrera Beutler as an effective representative and want to look past the Trump era.

Kathy McDonald, vice chair of the Clark County Republican Party, said she supported Trump and thought Herrera Beutler’s impeachment vote was “the wrong move for the district.” But she’s still backing her for reelection.

“I do find value in Jaime. She will be in a position of leadership when we take the House back. I almost hate to see us give that up,” McDonald said.

“Swamp creature”

Kent is dismissive, even contemptuous, of the value of congressional seniority. He calls Herrera Beutler “a corporatist swamp creature,” supports term limits, and says he wouldn’t seek earmarks for local projects because he opposes the big spending bills which contain them.

Kent, 42, enlisted in the Army at age 18 and went on to serve 11 combat tours. His belligerence toward the U.S. political establishment is grounded in part on personal tragedy. In 2019, his wife, Navy cryptologist Shannon Kent, was killed by a suicide bomber in Syria while fighting the Islamic State terrorist group. Kent blames U.S. leaders for promoting endless foreign interventions with little domestic benefit.

That’s how he views the rush to support Ukraine in its fight against Russia’s invasion. Kent said he opposes military aid for Ukraine and says the U.S. also should refuse to accept any refugees.

“This isn’t our fight. We have enough problems right here,” he said in an interview. He supports shutting the door to virtually all immigration, including banning H-1B visas used by tech firms such as Microsoft to hire highly skilled workers.

At another recent town hall in La Center, Clark County, held outside on the small town’s main drag after a local Mexican restaurant refused to host it, Kent mocked Washington state Republican leaders for urging Gov. Jay Inslee to accept refugees from Afghanistan.

“Honestly, I think we have to stop giving money to the Republican Party,” he said to a crowd of about 40 people. “The Republican Party is broken.”

Kent also called the state GOP weak on punishing Herrera Beutler and Newhouse for Trump’s impeachment. He said the party should have emulated Republicans in Wyoming, who kicked Rep. Liz Cheney out of the party for her impeachment vote and criticisms of Trump.

“That’s the kind of consequences that Republicans should face when they go against the America First agenda,” Kent said.

“Portland Joe”

While Kent’s campaign counts on Trump’s nod to propel him through the primary, St. John is trying to disrupt those plans, playing up her conservative values and deeper local connections.

“The biggest distinction between Joe and I is I am from here and he isn’t,” she said in an interview after a recent appearance in Chehalis, speaking to the Lewis County Republican Club at a luncheon.

St. John had pledged last year to back Trump’s pick in the race, and met with him to seek an endorsement. But after Trump endorsed Kent in September, she questioned the former president’s judgment and declined to step aside.

In recent months, St. John has relentlessly attacked Kent for registering as a Democrat in Portland, airing ads labeling him “Portland Joe, the Bernie Bro.”

Public records show Kent registered as a Libertarian in Oregon in 2012, but switched his affiliation to Democratic in 2019. Kent acknowledges he voted for Bernie Sanders in the 2020 Democratic primary, but says he only did so to mess with Democrats by pumping up the candidate viewed as weaker in a general election.

At her Chehalis appearance, St. John made little mention of Trump, while pressing culture war issues. She described Americans as “at war with ourselves right now” over issues including COVID vaccine mandates and comprehensive sex education in schools — both of which she opposes.

St. John, 52, and her husband have home-schooled their seven children and run a business helping other home-schoolers. She has urged families to pull out of public schools she regards as morally corrupt.

She previously called the 2020 election “the greatest vote heist in American history,” but St. John told the audience in Chehalis she sees little value in continuing to relitigate the results.

“I keep hearing Republicans crying about election fraud, and I’m not saying there’s no fraud. There have been frauds in our elections for a long, long time,” she said. But she said “the real problem” is that not enough Republicans vote “and we whine and cry we can’t win anything.”

Democrats have yet to show much focus on the 3rd District race. Still, Joe Maldonado, chair of the Clark County Democrats, said he’s heard no talk of falling in behind Herrera Beutler. “I fully expect we will have a strong candidate and a competitive race this year,” he said.

One wild card is how actively Trump will pursue his revenge tour against Herrera Beutler. Kent said he’s had assurances Trump will host a rally for him before the August primary, an event likely also benefiting Loren Culp, the Trump-endorsed challenger to Newhouse.

David Nierenberg, an investment manager and major GOP fundraiser backing Herrera Beutler, said Trump’s ability to raise money and stir up his base could spell trouble. “It’s possible that Jaime might have difficulty,” he said. “But right now, I think that things look reasonable for her.”

Nierenberg praised Herrera Beutler’s “extraordinary diplomatic skills,” saying she stood up to Trump without burning all bridges with the party. “I think she’s gone about as far as she can go without attracting the harshest possible retribution,” he said.

The largest contributor to Herrera Beutler’s reelection campaign is the Take Back the House PAC, connected to GOP House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, which has raised more than $160,000 for her reelection bid.

While she knows hardcore Trump loyalists aren’t going to forgive her, Herrera Beutler said the GOP should stand for conservative principles, not loyalty to one man. “I’m not going to let our party slide into the world where we have zero ideological foundation,” she said.

Kent said Herrera Beutler’s alliance with House Republican leaders is only more evidence she should go. “In every sense of the word, she is a globalist and she is a corporatist and that is why we must get rid of her,” he told the Longview audience.