SEATTLE —It’s been more than two decades since a member of Congress lost a race for reelection in Washington.
This year, one incumbent has already lost. And two more could be at risk.
As campaigns in Washington enter the final stretch before Election Day, voters will help determine the nation’s path on health care, economic stability, reproductive rights and public safety.
Washington could be a bellwether. If Democratic Sen. Patty Murray, seeking a sixth term in her tightest race in more than a decade, fails to win reelection, Democrats are all but certain to lose control of the Senate. If Democratic Rep. Kim Schrier loses her bid for a third term in Washington’s one true swing district, Democrats’ already fragile chances of holding control of the House of Representatives become almost untenable.
Democrats, should they keep control of Congress, want to codify abortion rights, while Republicans could seek a nationwide abortion ban. Republicans, both nationally and locally, have called for cutting government spending, but have little consensus about what they would cut.
Southwest Washington is certain to get a new House representative, as far-right Republican Joe Kent tries to keep the Republican-leaning 3rd District red, while Democrats have a rare chance to play offense, with Democrat Marie Gluesenkamp Perez trying to win enough moderate and conservative voters to swing the district.
Gluesenkamp Perez won the August primary, while Kent came out on top of a fractured Republican field, riding some GOP voters’ discontent with longtime Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler’s vote to impeach former President Donald Trump over his role in instigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Kent, a combat veteran, has called for a near total shutdown of all immigration, says those arrested on Jan. 6 are “political prisoners” and said Americans should have access to “the exact same weapons that our military has,” including machine guns.
Gluesenkamp Perez, an auto-shop owner, has sought to capitalize on Kent’s perceived extremism, running ads emphasizing the logging industry, technical education and Second Amendment rights.
Before Herrera Beutler, no incumbent had lost in Washington since Democrat Maria Cantwell knocked off Republican Slade Gorton to win a U.S. Senate seat in 2000.
No U.S. House member had lost in Washington since Jay Inslee beat Rick White in Northwest Washington’s 1st Congressional District in 1998.
“Incumbents win at a 95% plus rate, that’s just the way it is,” said Randy Pepple, a longtime Republican campaign consultant, unaffiliated with any candidates this year. Pepple ran White’s winning campaign in 1994, the last time multiple incumbents lost congressional seats in Washington.
“Except when you have wave elections and you have massive discontent amongst the voting public,” Pepple said.
With inflation high and some dissatisfaction with President Joe Biden, that’s what Tiffany Smiley, the former nurse and veterans advocate challenging Murray, and, to some extent, Matt Larkin, the attorney and businessman challenging Schrier, are counting on.
In the Senate race, Murray has led every public poll, but her lead in the polling average has shrunk considerably as the election has neared. She won the August primary with 52% of the vote (and Democratic candidates combined got 55%). The last time she had a close election, in 2010, she won just 46% of the primary vote, before going on to win the general election by about 4 points.
There has been little public polling in Schrier and Larkin’s 8th District, which spans the Cascade Mountains, joining east King, Pierce and Snohomish counties with central Washington’s Chelan and Kittitas counties. Schrier won 48% of the primary vote. Two years ago, in a less expensive and less competitive race, she won just 43% in the primary before going on to win the general by about 4 points.
“Historically speaking, the top-two primary gives us a decent proxy for the fall,” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “Maybe that’s just not operative now, we’ll see.”
The two parties, in an increasingly polarized country, are pushing distinct messages as they try to persuade and turn out voters.
Republicans are focused on crime, which has risen both locally and nationally in the last few years, seeking to strike fear in voters and link Democrats to the defund the police movement. Neither Murray nor Schrier joined calls to defund the police.
“Record rapes, carjackings, murders and overdoses plague our communities,” a recent Smiley ad says. “Who’s to blame? Patty Murray.”
“Criminals free in our communities, roaming the streets,” says a recent Larkin ad. “Kim Schrier is bought and paid for by the extremists.”
On the campaign trail, both Murray and Schrier cite Democrat-passed legislation that has increased funding to local police departments.
Democrats are largely focused on abortion rights, health care affordability and protecting popular safety net programs like Social Security and Medicare.
“It’s probably an overstatement to say that the messaging is one size fits all, but you see variations on the same themes across the country,” Kondik said.
Murray, in a state that has voted for a Democratic president for nearly 40 straight years, is seeking to remind voters of the national political environment as the race comes to a close.
Republicans in both the House and the Senate have been discussing plans to cut both Social Security and Medicare benefits.
One recent Murray ad warns of cuts to the two programs and a national abortion ban, while Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell calls Smiley “outstanding” over and over.
“Smiley is Mitch McConnell’s hand-picked candidate,” the ad says.
Smiley has said she wouldn’t cut Social Security or Medicare benefits for anyone “receiving or about to receive benefits,” but hasn’t ruled out future cuts. She has said she is “pro-life” but would vote against a national abortion ban.
The campaigns’ divergent focuses are resonating in an evermore polarized country, as voters on both sides say they’re less likely to mix and match candidates from both parties and more likely to vote a straight ticket.
“It’s increasingly just the letter next to their name,” said Jake Grumbach, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Washington and the author of a new book on how national political parties have come to dominate state politics. “If we go back a generation, it was entirely about candidate characteristics, you really couldn’t tell much about somebody from their party in the 1970s.”
Andy Stevens, a software engineer from Bothell, calls himself a “Washington Republican” (as opposed to a national Republican) but says he’s never voted a straight ticket before. He said he voted for Hillary Clinton, for Barack Obama twice, and several times for Rep. Rick Larsen, all Democrats.
But he’s upset about pandemic-era policies and about Democratic police reform legislation in Olympia, including laws limiting police chases to just violent crimes or DUIs. He said he’ll be voting a straight Republican ticket this year for the first time.
“I expected our lawmakers to be like, ‘Oh that was a really big mistake we won’t repeat it,’ and I’m seeing the exact opposite,” Stevens said of school and business closures. “I wanted to send a message this year that what’s been going on in Olympia, with this unbalanced, this one-party control is not OK.”
Prabhat Rimal owns a small Nepali restaurant in Redmond, serving momos and pizza. He considers himself an independent and he’s worried about Democrats drifting too far to the left: “Whatever’s going on in downtown Seattle, they have to be tighter on those issues.”
But he’s voting for all Democrats this year. At a Murray campaign event in Redmond last week, he said he wants tighter gun control laws and he trusts Democrats more on health care.
“I am from the middle class, I want health care for the people of the United States,” he said.
Murray has spent millions in advertising on abortion rights and the threats to democracy represented by the Jan. 6 attacks.
Those issues have resonated with Rituja Indapure, an IT manager and a Sammamish City Council member.
“Our basic democracy is on the line, and a right for women to make her own health care decisions,” she said. “We have robust institutions in place, but if we don’t keep voting, we can lose them.”
Voter turnout, as of Friday, is lagging several percentage points behind the last midterm election, in 2018, which saw the highest midterm turnout in Washington in half a century.
Grumbach, the UW professor, pointed out that with Biden in the White House the playing field favors the Republicans. Going back to World War II, the party holding the presidency has lost seats in the House in every midterm election except two.
“Those are the fundamentals, but then there’s things that change the fundamentals,” he said. “The Dobbs decision on abortion, inflation, the sort of crime increase and corresponding panic and backlash to Black Lives Matter. These things can take the election results away from the fundamentals.”