LONGVIEW — Turnout gaps. Extremist positions. Mass appeals to moderate voters.
Theories abound about how Democrat Marie Gluesenkamp Perez pulled out the upset win against Republican Joe Kent to win Washington’s 3rd Congressional District race. For an election where she currently leads by more than 2,900 votes out of about 320,000 ballots, a lot of things could have swung the election to the Republican favorite.
Kent has still not conceded the race. Since the district was called for Gluesenkamp Perez on Nov. 12, Kent closed the gap by 1,600 votes from roughly 12,000 ballots counted. Even so, he remains well behind the pace needed to overtake or significantly challenge her with the number of ballots remaining.
“We would not have declared victory if we felt there was an iota of a chance of the outcome being reversed,” said Phil Gardner, Gluesenkamp Perez’s campaign manager.
Since the election was called, two points of consensus emerged from political experts on both sides of the aisle. One is that Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler would likely have won reelection had she survived the primary challenge as the Republican candidate. The other is that Gluesenkamp Perez’s success this year is not guaranteed to repeat in 2024.
“The Democratic Party shouldn’t get complacent and think this was a big-D Democrat win. This was a Marie Gluesenkamp Perez win,” said former Rep. Brian Baird.
Perez runs ahead of Dems
Baird was the last Democrat who represented the 3rd District. He served six terms between 1998 and 2010 and came within 1,000 votes of upsetting the incumbent Republican representative in 1996. Baird now lives in Edmonds and primarily works with the National Museum and Center for Service, but he has continued to keep an eye on his former district.
Baird said he had started pitching other Democrats on Gluesenkamp Perez’s chances over the summer, when the chaotic field for the Republican primary was apparent. Kent was one of many challengers to Herrera Beutler angered by her vote to impeach Donald Trump after the Jan. 6 insurrection.
Gluesenkamp Perez was locked in as the Democrat’s frontrunner after Brett Hennrich dropped out of the race. Baird said that Kent’s extremism and lack of incumbent connections made the district an easier reach for Democrats.
“I don’t think every (primary) vote for Joe Kent was a voter that loved Joe Kent. (Herrera Beutler) was winning that district handily prior to her impeachment vote,” Baird said.
This year’s primary had a lower turnout rate than many counties expected, especially for Republican voters. State Rep. Jim Walsh posted about the issue on Facebook last week, citing GOP numbers that show Republican turnout was lower across the board than in 2018. The biggest gaps were among the “reliable” and “casual” voters, who come out for presidential and midterm elections but aren’t enthusiastic for local races, his data shows.
“It’s always tempting to focus on persuading voters, but you can’t forget about turning out the vote from your base. And generally in our state, the Democrats do a better job at that,” Walsh said.
The results in Cowlitz County show how effectively Gluesenkamp Perez ran ahead of the party in rural areas. In every single precinct in Cowlitz County, she performed as well or better than Democrat Patty Murray did in her Senate race against Republican Tiffany Smiley. She outpaced Murray by at least five percentage points in more than a third of the county’s precincts.
Longview had the largest gap. Smiley received around 1,500 more votes than Murray in the city’s precincts. Gluesenkamp Perez, however, beat Kent by around 400 votes in the same precincts.
Mark Stephan, a political science professor at Washington State University Vancouver, said Gluesenkamp Perez had a stronger message on issues within the district.
While Kent campaigned on messages about defunding the FBI and cracking down on immigration on the U.S.-Mexico border, Stephan said Gluesenkamp Perez took a lead from Baird and Herrera Beutler by emphasizing her roots in rural Skamania County and issues that impacted local businesses.
“(Herrera Beutler’s) campaign website had a lot about what’s going on for small businesses, for salmon, for salmon fisherman. She had consistency in the local focus that I think Gluesenkamp Perez sort of mirrored on some level,” Stephan said.
Walsh said there was also a messaging gap in the final weeks of the campaign. He said that he’d heard from a lot of local voters about Gluesenkamp Perez’s mailers and TV ads. The majority of Kent’s fundraising and advertising took place during the primary, leaving him with a smaller budget and limited national support.
Baird expected the district to be a “top five target in the country” during the 2024 election. He advised her to continue appearing at local events across the district, find ways to make a mark in the Republican-controlled House, and hope to face another candidate as polarizing and controversial as Kent.
Walsh expected the national Democratic Party would be more supportive of Gluesenkamp Perez the second time around.
“On a generic ballot, there’s no question the district leans Republican,” Walsh said. “But it looks like she’ll have the advantages of incumbency, and those are considerable.”