Al Drago/Pool via AP
Eight days before a rocky primary, U.S. Representative Jaime Herrera Beutler found herself on top of a sewage treatment plant in Washougal, a small town in her district in southwestern Washington state.
Her opponents had spent the weekend holding town halls and celebrations, but the MP said she was focused on her job. This focus brought her to the factory, where Washougal staff thanked her for securing $1 million in federal funds to purchase and install something called an anoxic selector.
“Is that how you say it?” she said laughing. “I’m not going to lie, I can Lily this. I’m like, ‘Let’s support this. It looks important. “
Herrera Beutler was one of 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach then-President Donald Trump following the Capitol insurrection. And she’s one of three on the ballot Tuesday — in Washington state and Michigan — aiming to fend off key opponents.
In Washington, east of Herrera Beutler’s 3rd congressional district, Rep. Dan Newhouse of the 4th district faces a Trump-backed challenger. Just like Rep. Peter Meijer in Michigan.
In her race, Herrera Beutler – who stands by her impeachment vote but did not make it the subject of her re-election bid – faces several well-funded challengers from her own party, presenting for the first time the real possibility that she does not pass primary school.
Those challengers include Trump-backed former Green Beret Joe Kent and Christian podcaster and homeschooling advocate Heidi St. John, who are targeting the district’s more conservative voters.
The six-term congresswoman, who was first elected in 2010, acknowledged that being flanked by the right is an entirely new experience.
“I’ve never been in this position, this way,” she told NPR. “I have no metrics – no experience to say, ‘This is how it’s all going to work. And that’s how I should run this race. “
So, she says, she takes a business-as-usual approach.
“It’s not going to get a lot of social media feeds,” she said of her tour of the sewage treatment plant. “While I’ve always felt like if you do your hometown congressman’s job, the election takes care of itself. And that’s been proven to be true now many times over.”
“Primary of the Jungle”
That may be true of how and when she makes public appearances, but the congresswoman is also deploying a different tactic: appealing to moderates, independents and even Democrats.
It’s a strategy made possible by Washington State’s two major primary systems. The so-called “jungle primary” puts all candidates on a single ballot and advances the top two voters in the general election, regardless of party. Since voters are not required to declare party affiliation, they can more easily cross the aisle if they wish.
This is seen as likely to benefit Herrera Beutler, who will no longer have the district’s dedicated curators behind her. While Washington’s 3rd District straddles the Portland metro area, its rural voters have steadily driven it to re-election.
Her campaign ads are full of unity rhetoric and senders cast her as an “independent” candidate.
“Yes, I’m a Republican,” Herrera Beutler said in the interview. “But I’m also very independent in my approach. And that’s what people want to see here. So I bet that’s going to continue to be the most important thing for voters.”
It works in his favor that Democrats — who have faced tough challenges in the past two cycles — have been largely absent this year. A Democratic candidate, Marie Gluesenkamp Perez, joined the race late and raised far less money than the Republican challengers.
Conservatives in conflict
It also helps Herrera Beutler that Kent and St. John not only attack her, but each other as well.
Thanks to a spending spree by outside groups, direct mail and TV ads supporting St. John poured into the district decrying Kent as a secret Democrat and a “Bernie Bro.” (Kent acknowledges that he voted for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in Oregon’s 2020 presidential primary when he lived there, but says his goal was to give Trump a weaker opponent.)
Kent frequently states that St. John is dividing the district’s conservative electoral bloc and indirectly supporting Herrera Beutler.
“I wouldn’t do the establishment … the favor of being the person who is manipulated into drowning out the voice of the people,” Kent told a crowd of about 30 outside Vancouver, Washington, the month last.
Federal campaign documents show that Kent has been heavily targeted with outside spending. The Women for Winning Action Fund, which spent $518,000 on Herrera Beutler’s behalf, also spent $1.7 million against Kent. And a newly created and largely anonymous super PAC called Conservatives for a Stronger America has paid out money on behalf of St. John’s and spent $520,000 against Kent.
After the town hall, Kent expressed frustration with the expense. He described it as “death by a thousand cuts”.
The bad blood between St. John and Kent dates back to March 2021, when they both vowed in a public forum to stand down and support anyone who received Trump’s approval to unseat Herrera Beutler. The former president endorsed Kent six months later, but St. John stayed in the running.
St. John maintained that she made the deal before learning more about Kent. She mocks him as “Portland Joe” because Kent, a Portland native, was a registered Democrat in Oregon until he moved to the 3rd District.
The divide creates a tough choice for the district’s more conservative voters.
Melinda Lucas, a 72-year-old Ridgefield resident, said St. John initially intrigued her, but was drawn to Kent’s policies. Kent supports strict borders, an end to foreign wars and an audit of the 2020 election, which he falsely claims was stolen from Trump.
“Voter fraud was significant,” Lucas said. “And I will say, my husband said, ‘It’s a green beret. I trust him. “
Still, other Republicans are concerned about Kent’s ties to extremism. He was a keynote speaker at the so-called “Justice for J6” rally in Washington, DC, last September, where he called for clemency for those facing criminal charges for the riot.
In March, Kent had to distance himself from white nationalist Nick Fuentes after he publicly claimed Kent’s campaign was looking to work with him. Kent confirmed he had a phone call with Fuentes, but declined to know anything about Fuentes and said the relationship never progressed.
Kent’s chief consultant, Matt Braynard, told Oregon Public Broadcasting in March that he set up a booth at Fuentes’ “America First” convention. Braynard said attendees “didn’t seem too interested in us.”
And last week, the Associated Press reported that Kent’s campaign paid more than $11,000 to a person identified by law enforcement as a member of the far-right Proud Boys. Kent’s campaign told a reporter that the man had no “current affiliations” with “outside organizations”, the Associated Press reported.
Mark Jager, a 64-year-old Vancouver resident, described St. John and Kent as “fringe” Republicans, but said he still considered them valid candidates.
“It’s a part of the party that I don’t identify with, but they absolutely have a right to have their point of view and to be in this race,” Jager said.
Jager said he would support Herrera Beutler in the primary. But Jager said if Herrera Beutler fails in the primary he will face a tough choice in November.
Jager said he might even consider voting for Democrat Perez.
“I’m going to look at all the candidates, you know, including the Democrat, and vote my conscience on this issue,” he said. “I will consider all applicants in my decision, and I might walk across the aisle if I feel so emotional.”