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News / Politics / Clark County Politics

New GOP contender — a Camas city councilor — complicates Republican attempt to win back WA congressional seat

Leslie Lewallen’s entry clouds Joe Kent’s bid for a rematch with U.S. Rep. Marie Gluesenkamp Perez.

By JERRY CORNFIELD, Washington State Standard
Published: September 26, 2023, 7:43am

CAMAS — Republicans are desperate to recapture the southwest Washington congressional seat they lost in 2022. But first they must settle who will carry the GOP torch into battle against Democratic U.S. Rep. Marie Gluesenkamp Perez next year.

Joe Kent, a conservative adherent of former president Donald Trump, who Gluesenkamp Perez defeated in the 3rd Congressional District, is bidding for a rematch. He’s piled up money and secured early endorsements from the state Republican Party and several county GOP parties as well.

But he’s also now facing a stern intraparty challenge from Leslie Lewallen who has amassed a tidy sum of cash and backing of a few GOP influencers since entering the race.

On Saturday, Lewallen formally launched her campaign at a malt shop in Camas where she lives and serves on the City Council.

“I’m a fighter,” Lewallen told a crowd of supporters that included Tiffany Smiley, the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate last year, and John Carlson, longtime talk radio host and a 2000 GOP candidate for governor.

Though Lewallen never mentioned Kent in a five-minute speech, she left little doubt she’ll remind Republican voters of the past and the importance of not repeating it.

“I’m the only one who can beat Marie Perez in 2024,” she said. “If we do not beat Marie Perez, we could potentially lose this seat forever. We could lose the majority in the House of Representatives and we could continue to lose the country that we love.”

Lewallen said in an interview that one reason for Kent’s setback – which cost Republicans the seat Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler had held for 12 years – is that many GOP voters found him “too extreme” and wound up not voting or instead casting a ballot for Gluesenkamp Perez.

The Kent Campaign, in a statement, blamed efforts of pro-Republican forces for his coming up 2,500 votes shy of victory.

“In 2022, Joe Kent lost the seat by less than 1% despite a deeply divided Republican Party that spent $10 million against him in the primary and being outspent 6-to-1 in the general election,” it reads. “Joe Kent is the battle-tested Republican who will defeat Marie Perez in 2024.”

New election, old problem

The 3rd District is guaranteed to attract national attention and significant spending as a marquee political battleground in 2024. Republicans are smarting from losing the seat and Democrats are motivated to keep it. The district covers Lewis, Pacific, Wahkiakum, Cowlitz, Clark and Skamania counties and a touch of Thurston County.

For Kent, a former Army Special Forces soldier, it has to feel a bit like deja vu. A little more than two years ago, he set out to unseat Herrera Beutler following her vote to impeach the former president. Trump endorsed him.

But several other Republicans had the same idea. That became problematic. Five GOP candidates appeared on the ballot and three – Herrera Beutler, Kent and Heidi St. John – campaigned aggressively. Kent found himself vying with St. John for votes from the party’s far-right constituency.

In the end, he got enough to advance. But carrying the party banner in the general election wasn’t enough as Gluesenkamp Perez gave congressional Democrats one of their few pick-ups in the nation.

Kent began his current bid almost immediately after his defeat was certified. Kent and Lewallen haven’t spoken about their duel as he’s focused on establishing himself as the party’s chosen one.

Last month, Kent supporters successfully pushed GOP state committee members to endorse him on the spot rather than wait until next year’s state Republican Party convention as is the more usual route. That will lead to money, volunteers and other logistical support.

He’s also sewn up backing from Republican Party organizations in Clark, Cowlitz, Lewis, Skamania, Wahkiakum, and Thurston counties.

“Joe is the only officially recognized Republican in the race,” the statement from his campaign reads. “This cycle, Republicans across the district, state, and country are unifying behind him because they know the only way we lose again is if the party is divided.”

A path and the math

Inside Natalia’s malt shop, Lewallen said she wouldn’t be running if she thought Kent could win.

He’s up against history, which shows losing candidates rarely win rematches here in Washington, she said.

And the arithmetic doesn’t favor him either, she said, detailing “the clear path” she sees for herself facing, and defeating, Gluesenkamp Perez in November 2024.

It begins with those 2022 primary results, in which roughly 65% of ballots cast went to a Republican candidate. Kent finished with 22.78% leaving around 42% wanting some other GOP option, she noted.

Then, three months later, in the general election, Smiley lost her Senate run, but beat U.S. Sen. Patty Murray by nearly 8% in the 3rd District, collecting 25,000 more votes than the longtime Democrat incumbent.

And Smiley’s vote total of 172,690 was about 15,000 greater than what Kent received. That’s critical because he lost to Gluesenkamp Perez by 2,500 votes.

Lewallen said she’s talked to Republicans who flipped and voted for Gluesenkamp Perez because they viewed Kent as “too extreme.” She said her task is winning over those disenchanted Republicans.

This won’t be a cheap endeavor.

Kent had raised $433,000 and Lewallen hauled in $141,500 as of June 30, according to their most recent Federal Election Commission filings. Gluesenkamp Perez collected $1.5 million through the end of June.

The next quarterly reports will cover fundraising and spending through Sept. 30.

Lewallen knows it won’t be easy. Not informing Kent and some local GOP party leaders of her intentions means she’ll have to work around the party.

“I think maybe that upset some people who thought I should be making the rounds and kissing some rings,” she said. “It’s a free country. The fact that we lost the race in the last election when we shouldn’t have lost the race is one of the reasons I jumped in.”

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