Washington House seat in play amid increased polarization

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Republican Joe Kent, left, and Democrat Marie Gluesenkamp Perez wait before taking the stage for a debate in the race for the 3rd Congressional District, Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2022, in Vancouver, Wash. Kent and Perez are battling for the newly open in seat in the southwest corner of the state after incumbent Republican Jaime Herrera Buetler was ousted in the primary. (AP Photo/Rachel La Corte)

VANCOUVER, Wash. – For years, a congressional seat in a Republican district in southwest Washington has evaded Democrats. Now, with the incumbent congresswoman ousted over her vote to impeach former President Donald Trump, they have a slim chance in a race that has pitted an “America First” Republican against a rural Democrat.

The tough battle in the 3rd Congressional District is a key race for both parties as the House is up for grabs amid an environment of increasing polarization.

Long-time Republican U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler was one of 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump following the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. She finished third in the August primary, where the top two finishers win a chance to face off in the general election, regardless of party.

Now Democrat Marie Gluesenkamp Perez and Trump-endorsed Republican Joe Kent are fighting for the seat. Herrera Beutler has not endorsed a candidate and has not said how she plans to vote.

Herrera Buetler took 22% percent of the vote in the primary. Which candidate her supporters opt for next month will be key in determining whether Republicans retain the seat or Democrats score an upset, said Mark Stephan, an associate professor of political science at Washington State University-Vancouver.

“Even though Republicans continue to dominate the 3rd District, they are split in their perspectives,” he said. “This is a Republican district, and it will be for a while. But there’s this small sliver of chance for the Democrats now.”

The former president garnered just 38% of the statewide vote in 2020 but narrowly won the 3rd District with 50.6% of the vote. In comparison, Herrera Beutler captured more than 56% in her race that year.

Stephan said “the polarization of the rest of the country can be visualized in the 3rd District."

A recent debate in Vancouver, the largest city in the district, showed the vast difference between the two candidates, with Gluesenkamp Perez saying Kent is too extreme and Kent countering that she would be a rubber stamp vote for Democrats.

Kent, a former Green Beret who is a regular on conservative cable and podcasts, has called for the impeachment of President Joe Biden and an investigation into the 2020 election. He’s also called to defund the FBI after the search on Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home for classified documents.

He railed against COVID shutdowns and vaccine mandates at the debate, calling the vaccine “experimental gene therapy” and saying Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, “must be held accountable.”

“Does anyone else here feel like they just spent a month on YouTube?” Gluesenkamp Perez asked the crowd, saying that Kent's comments are "doing nothing to heal our country.”

Kent responded that the loss of his wife, a Navy cryptologist who was killed by a suicide bomber in Syria during a mission to fight the Islamic State in 2019, was "because our ruling class, Republicans and Democrats, consistently lied to the American people to keep us engaged in wars abroad.”

"That is why I have a skepticism of our federal government,” he said.

Gluesenkamp Perez — who co-owns an auto shop with her husband just across the border in Portland, Oregon — said that as a small business owner who lives in a rural part of the district, she is more in line with voters. She supports abortion access and policies to counter climate change, but also is a gun owner who said she opposes an assault rifle ban, though she does support raising the age of purchase for such guns to 21.

“I am not your typical Democrat,” she told the crowd. “We have got to get people in Congress who fix things again, not people that are out starting flame wars.”

Kent said Gluesenkamp Perez “will vote in lock step” with Democrats.

“How’s your 401k doing right now, how’s your future look for your kids? Very bleak,” he said. “We cannot have two more years of the Democrats at the helm. I’m going there to be a check and a balance on Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden.”

Kent has had to address connections to right-wing extremists throughout his campaign, something Gluesenkamp Perez pointed to during the debate, saying that he wanted to ban immigration “to ensure a white majority.”

“This nonsense about me being a white nationalist is absolutely despicable,” Kent countered. “I fought for this country for over 20 years, I placed my life in the hands of minorities and people of every single race and creed and sexuality, and they’ve placed their lives in my hands.”

Ron Moon, 79, attended the debate wearing a red “Fire Pelosi” hat with a Joe Kent button attached. Moon said he had voted for Herrera Beutler in previous elections, calling her the “lesser of two evils.”

Her impeachment vote following the attack on the U.S. Capitol was the last straw: “That was the end,” he said. “I never again thought about supporting her.”

Nearby, 70-year-old Nancy Everly was wearing a shirt supporting Gluesenkamp Perez and a necklace of Scrabble tiles that spelled out “Vote.”

“I have to support a candidate who is pro-choice,” she said. “We can’t go backwards.”

Ballots will be mailed by Oct. 21 to the state’s nearly 4.8 million registered voters, including the more than 499,000 in the 3rd Congressional District. Because Washington is a vote-by-mail state and ballots just need to be in by Election Day, it often takes days to learn final results in close races as ballots arrive at county election offices throughout the week.