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News / Northwest

Maria Cantwell seeks fifth Senate term, facing GOP’s Raul Garcia and 10 other primary foes

By Orion Donovan Smith, The Spokesman-Review
Published: June 24, 2024, 8:40am

SPOKANE — Sen. Maria Cantwell’s first term in the Senate didn’t come easy, as she defeated incumbent Republican Slade Gorton by a margin of less than 0.1% in 2000. Since then, the Democrat has cruised to re-election three times as Washington has become an ever-bluer state.

On paper, this year should be no different as Cantwell seeks a fifth term in office. The nonpartisan Cook Political Report and the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics both rate the race solidly Democratic. Her leading GOP challenger, Yakima physician Raul Garcia, hopes Washington voters will defy expectations and respond to his appeal for unity in an era of intense partisanship.

In more than two decades in the Senate, however, Cantwell has earned a reputation as more policy wonk than partisan firebrand. She has become one of the more influential members of the Senate, rising to lead the Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, whose jurisdiction includes key Washington industries like aviation, fisheries and technology.

In an interview, Cantwell said she intends to continue efforts to modernize the U.S. economy and help Washingtonians take advantage of major investments in research, manufacturing and infrastructure that she has helped to enact.

Her time in Congress, she said, has taught her that nothing gets done without working across the political aisle.

“What you learn is that it’s only 100 people, that you can disagree with people on things one day, but you might be working with them the next day,” Cantwell said, giving the example of her work with Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Spokane, to establish a national data privacy standard.

“I, unfortunately, have a gene that says, ‘Just get stuff done,’ “ she said with a laugh. “And I think, right now, some people would rather argue than get things done.”

Garcia, who was endorsed by state GOP delegates at a raucous party convention in April, has made combating the fentanyl crisis the centerpiece of his campaign. In an interview, he said that issue can bring together Republicans and Democrats, although he conceded that not everyone will agree with his proposal for addressing the epidemic, which includes imposing manslaughter charges for drug dealers and mandatory rehabilitation for addicts.

“You have to find topics that can unify the country,” Garcia said. “For example, fentanyl is something that — no matter if you’re a Democrat or Republican, independent or Libertarian — this will affect you. This will affect your family. This will affect your neighbors.”

Fentanyl is the main culprit in roughly 74,000 annual deaths from overdoses on synthetic opioids in the United States, according to the latest federal data. Cantwell has also made addressing fentanyl a priority, organizing a series of roundtable discussions around the state and cosponsoring the bipartisan FEND Off Fentanyl Act, which Congress passed in April to impose sanctions on fentanyl suppliers.

Along with addressing the fentanyl crisis, the pillars of Garcia’s campaign are promoting unity in the face of division, cutting federal spending to reduce the cost of living and improving women’s health care, especially in rural parts of the state.

It’s an unusual pitch at a time when the Republican Party is in the thrall of former President Donald Trump, who spurns bipartisanship and boasts about appointing three conservative justices who helped the Supreme Court overturn a nationwide right to abortion in 2022. That decision upended women’s health care in states like Idaho, where a restrictive abortion law pushed Bonner General Health in Sandpoint and other hospitals to close their maternity wards.

Even in Washington, which has some of the least-restrictive abortion laws in the nation, some hospitals have been forced to close their OB-GYN services by high costs and limited revenue. Astria Toppenish Hospital on the Yakama Reservation, where Garcia works as the medical director and an emergency physician, closed its maternity ward in December 2022.

“To me, it was hurtful for our hospital to close OB-GYN,” he said. “We are the only hospital in the Yakama Nation, and pregnant women from White Swan have to drive all the way to Yakima or Sunnyside to deliver their babies.”

Garcia said he wants the federal government to expand the Critical Access designation to let hospitals get higher reimbursement rates for women’s health and maternity care. On Monday, Cantwell and 15 other Senate Democrats introduced a bill that would increase reimbursement rates and other funding for rural OB-GYN services, mentioning Garcia’s hospital in a news release.

Asked about her opponent’s focus on women’s health, Cantwell suggested it wouldn’t matter because Garcia wouldn’t vote with Democrats to codify a nationwide right to abortion. Such a move would require either a 60-vote majority in the Senate unless a majority of senators agree to change the chamber’s filibuster rule for that purpose, which some Democrats and all Republicans have so far opposed.

Garcia said he believes that life begins at conception and he has never performed an abortion, but he said that because the Supreme Court’s 2022 decision left abortion up to the states, he would represent the will of Washington voters and support the legal right to terminate a pregnancy.

“I would never vote for an abortion ban or to make abortion illegal, because I have studied the ramifications and consequences of that increasing the morbidity and mortality of women,” he said, adding that banning abortion can prevent doctors from providing potentially lifesaving care in the case of miscarriage, ectopic pregnancy and other conditions.

“I can’t get behind that as a physician that is trying to save lives,” he said. “It is our responsibility to send that woman to the operating room to make sure she survives.”

Garcia also broke with some conventions of a Republican Party that has been increasingly defined by fealty to Trump and his claim that President Joe Biden wasn’t legitimately elected.

“Show me the proof, and there has not been any proof that he wasn’t,” Garcia said of Biden’s election. “He’s our president, he was elected in 2020, and for me that’s the end of the discussion.”

Garcia said he supports some of Trump’s policies in office but hadn’t decided for whom he would vote in the presidential race, adding that “I am going to stay away from the weeds of the presidential campaign, because if I don’t, I can’t really be successful in a U.S. Senate race.

“I would like to vote for the person that I feel, in November, is going to help me unite the country the most and help Washington state the most,” he added, joking that either the 81-year-old Biden or the 78-year-old Trump would “probably be very happy to have an emergency physician in Congress, because they’re not young ducklings.”

Cantwell said she is proud of the contributions she and her staff have made to some of the biggest legislative achievements of the Biden administration, including the bipartisan infrastructure law passed in 2021, another bipartisan bill passed in 2022 to invest in research and semiconductor manufacturing, and the package of health care and renewable energy provisions that Democrats passed a month later.

She cited another accomplishment that exemplified her influence in the Senate, when the government of India lifted tariffs on apples and lentils from Washington in 2023 at the urging of Cantwell and the Biden administration, after she heard from growers about the impact to their business.

“I listened to them, I thought it’s well worth fighting to go get that done and it will matter to them,” Cantwell said. “It was hard, because actually the Indian government’s response was, ‘We just made a bunch of Boeing airplane purchases. Why are you pushing this?’

“And I said, ‘Because there’s thousands of farmers in my state that don’t have a big company like Boeing behind them, but you have decimated this market into nothing because of these tariffs. And they were like, ‘OK.’ So you just have to show up and fight.”

A Cascade Public Media/Elway Research poll conducted in October and November found Cantwell leading Garcia by a margin of 43% to 23%. The incumbent’s lead narrowed in a CPM/Elway poll conducted in May, with Cantwell at 39% and Garcia at 30%.

As of March 31, Cantwell had a significant fundraising advantage, with $10.5 million raised and $6.5 million on hand. Garcia had raised $406,000 and had $151,000 on hand.

Ten other candidates will be on the primary ballot, far fewer than the 29 who entered the race when Cantwell last faced re-election in 2018. In Washington state, candidates don’t register to run under a party’s banner but rather indicate which party they “prefer.”

Other self-identified Republicans in the race include Isaac Holyk, Scott Nazarino, Melanie Ram and perennial candidate Goodspaceguy. Paul Lawrence Giesick is running as a Democrat. Thor Amundson and Chuck Jackson are running as independents, while David Tilton identified himself as part of the “Non-Partisan Party.” Henry Clay Dennison entered the race as part of the Socialist Workers Party.

Of those candidates, only Holyk filed a report with the Federal Election Commission for the first quarter of 2024, reporting $2,004 raised and $367 on hand. The next FEC filing deadline is July 15.

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Ballots must be postmarked by primary day, Aug. 6, or deposited in an official ballot drop box before 8 p.m. that day. Voter registrations submitted online and by mail must be received by July 29, but voters can register in person during business hours and any time before 8 p.m. on primary day.