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Jayne: Perez’s path to surprise win

By Greg Jayne, Columbian Opinion Page Editor
Published: November 20, 2022, 6:02am

It is, by any measure, stunning. Not in a bad way, mind you. But stunning nonetheless.

Democrat Marie Gluesenkamp Perez has been elected to Congress, a prospect that a year ago, she says, was “minimal to zero; this was not on my radar.” No, the Skamania County resident had her hands full, running a business with her husband and finding day care for their infant son.

But in unpacking the surprise of the midterm elections, it is remarkable the number of things that had to break just right for Perez to be conducting a phone interview last week from Washington, D.C.

Perez announced her run for Congress in March, a time when viable candidates typically have campaign organizations and fundraising mechanisms in place. In April, I asked a local politician if they were considering a run for Congress. The answer: “In 2022? Anyone getting into that race less than a year before the election is not a serious candidate.”

And that was somebody with local name recognition, of which Perez had none.

But Perez’s story could not be ignored; it’s too compelling. Co-owner of an auto repair shop; young mother; rural resident who notes that she lives on a gravel road, her water comes from a well and her internet comes from a radio tower.

A lot of people could relate, but many an everywoman candidate has been unable to overcome a lack of political experience and organization. Then again, few grassroots candidates have an economics degree from Reed College.

As remarkable as all of that is, Perez’s path to victory benefited from many things out of her control.

One was the Supreme Court decision in June overturning Roe v. Wade. Polls show that many voters, particularly women and young adults, were newly motivated to action. They found a kindred spirit in Perez, who wrote on her campaign website, “I’ll stand up to the politicians who want to tell women what to do and protect funding for Planned Parenthood.”

Another was the presence and prominence of Joe Kent as a candidate. Running as a Trump Republican, Kent — along with Perez — outpolled six-term Republican incumbent Jaime Herrera Beutler in the primary. To which Perez says, “When I thought Jaime was going to pull through the primary, I felt like walking around in a bathrobe for a week. I was not looking forward to running against Jaime.”

Herrera Beutler would have posed a daunting challenge in the general election. She would have held moderate Republicans and been viewed by far-right Republicans as a better alternative than a Democrat. Considering that Republican candidates garnered more than 60 percent of the vote in the primary, it likely would have been an easy victory for the incumbent.

But Joe Kent is not Jaime Herrera Beutler, a fact that lends intrigue to the final outcome. We will never know how many Democratic supporters voted for Kent in the primary in hopes of knocking Herrera Beutler out of the race; if they were legion, they managed to play with fire and not get burned.

In the end, it was Kent’s incendiary rhetoric that decided the race. As one local political insider assessed, it was a victory for “truth vs. mendacity, democracy vs. dictatorship, science vs. fiction, inclusivity vs. white supremacy, the rule of law vs. the rule of the mob.”

Does that make it surprising? In a sad commentary on our current politics, the answer probably is yes. And voters of the 3rd Congressional District deserve credit for rejecting the profoundly un-American traits of the “America First” movement in favor of civility – albeit barely.

Which brings us back to the genesis of Perez’s victory. Living in a rural area, she was quick to recognize the support that Kent was generating and decide to do something about it.

“It was a belief that Joe and what he believes was ascendant in the Republican Party,” Perez says. “I felt a real historical and moral imperative to not let these values gain more traction in our district.”

She accomplished that. And it was stunning.