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News / Opinion / Columns
The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.

Jayne: Herrera Beutler makes wise move

By Greg Jayne, Columbian Opinion Page Editor
Published: October 21, 2023, 6:02am

When it comes to politics, Washington may as well be one of those caricature maps. You know, an outline where the Seattle area inhabits two-thirds of the state’s land mass and Vancouver and Spokane are squeezed into their respective corners.

This is not a complaint. It’s simply the reality of having the big five counties that surround Puget Sound account for 59 percent of the state’s population. Conservatives in Washington can complain all they want about “Seattle liberals” dominating statewide politics, but one person equals one vote in this country — unless we’re talking about the Electoral College.

Because of the immutable properties of mathematics, would-be candidates from Southwest Washington are reluctant to run for statewide office. And when they do run, it can be a Sisyphean task.

Which makes Jaime Herrera Beutler’s campaign for public lands commissioner all the more fascinating. The Republican, who represented Southwest Washington for 12 years in Congress before losing a reelection bid last year, has announced that she is running to oversee the Department of Natural Resources.

Politically, it seems like a wise move for several reasons.

One reason is that Herrera Beutler arguably had a decent record in Congress of focusing on natural resources.

Then again, the League of Conservation Voters gave her a lifetime score of 14 percent on environmental issues. That will be easy for opponents to pick apart, and it will weigh heavily in Washington. The importance of public lands, after all, is self-evident here — we are one of five states with an elected natural resources commissioner.

Another reason is that in running for a relatively low-profile position, Herrera Beutler has a head start in name recognition and political organization.

And yet another is that public lands commissioner transcends some of the tribalism that shadows other statewide elected positions. Herrera Beutler’s vote in favor of Donald Trump’s second impeachment might lead some Democrats to give her a chance, and disagreements about tax policy, abortion rights and the Affordable Care Act will be nonfactors.

So, Herrera Beutler has that going for her. What she has going against her is the R next to her name and the almost nonexistent history of statewide candidates from outside the Seattle area.

Republicans hold no statewide elected offices in Washington (or Oregon or California, for that matter), and the party’s influence has diminished in the past decade. But you probably knew that.

The bigger issue, it seems, might be a historical dearth of statewide candidates from these parts. As far as we can tell, George Barton Simpson was the last person from Clark County to endear themselves to voters across Washington. And that was almost 80 years ago.

According to the Clark History section of Columbian.com, Simpson was a Superior Court judge before being appointed to the state Supreme Court in 1937. He then won elections in 1938 and 1944.

Others have tried. Congresswoman Linda Smith ran for the U.S. Senate in 1998 and reached the general election before losing to Patty Murray by 16 points. And Don Bonker twice reached the general election for secretary of state. But in looking for political powerhouses from Clark County, we might need to go back to Eugene Semple, who was appointed governor of the Washington Territory by President Grover Cleveland in 1887.

The reasons for this go beyond simple math. As one local political observer explained in an email: “I do believe the population issue is the primary reason, but another could be that the traditional reasons statewide candidates do well (name recognition, money or access to funds, strong grassroots, etc.) are a heavy lift for someone from our region. There is also the possibility that Democratic candidates are not liberal enough and Republican candidates are not conservative enough.”

All of which will play a role in Herrera Beutler’s quest. Redrawing a map, after all, can be a chore.