If Cathy McMorris Rodgers is elected in November to her seventh term in Congress, she’ll have to overcome a historically weak primary performance and an electorate clamoring for change.
That’s the consensus of players on both sides of the aisle in Spokane following her showing Tuesday against Democratic challenger Joe Pakootas and several other challengers. McMorris Rodgers garnered just under 42 percent of the vote based on ballots counted through Thursday, her lowest share of ballots cast since posting 30 percent in the September 2004 primary that propelled her to Washington D.C.
A majority of votes in the 5th Congressional District went to Republicans on Tuesday. But unlike that 2004 primary, where McMorris Rodgers’ two Republican challengers each collected more than 13 percent of the vote, on Tuesday she faced just one other Republican, Tom Horne, who received under 11 percent.
“She needs to pay attention, and really get out there and campaign hard,” said George Nethercutt, who preceded McMorris Rodgers’ from 1995 through 2005.
Pakootas’ campaign is encouraged by the poll numbers, which staffers were still crunching on Friday. While McMorris Rodgers’ share of the vote was down in all 10 counties that make up the 5th Congressional District compared with 2014, Pakootas gained in all of them.
“We’re basically in a nine-point race,” said Susan Brudnicki, Pakootas’ campaign spokeswoman.
McMorris Rodgers’ numbers do not necessarily portend a November defeat. She had more support in the primary than did Tom Foley in 1994, the year the sitting Speaker of the House was defeated by Nethercutt.
But it’s not just her numbers that could give supporters pause. Ian Field, the congresswoman’s former spokesman, was defeated handily in the primary for Kevin Parker’s former seat in the state House of Representatives, despite radio ads featuring McMorris Rodgers’ endorsement.
Nethercutt and other Republican officials said the Democratic Party was energized by the national convention in Philadelphia in late July and pointed to low voter turnout as possible explanations for McMorris Rodgers’ drop at the ballot box. But they also believe the portions of the party calling for structural change, including those that have rocketed political outsider Donald Trump to the top of the GOP presidential ticket, could explain the numbers.
“I think Cathy, to a great extent, lost touch with her constituents,” said Kate McCaslin, a former Spokane County commissioner for the Republican Party who now heads the Association of Builders and Contractors in Manheim, Pennsylvania. “That’s reflected in her numbers.”
McMorris Rodgers has shown hesitant support for Trump, issuing a statement in May that she cast her primary ballot for the New York real estate mogul with reservations.
“Did I cast my ballot with enthusiasm? Not exactly – I’m still getting to know Mr. Trump like so many others,” she wrote then.
Following her primary victory Tuesday, McMorris Rodgers said she would still support the GOP nominee in November.
“My position hasn’t changed,” she said.
In between those two statements, Trump was rebuked by many top Republicans, including Sens. John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Kelly Ayotte, for his pronouncements about the family of a Muslim-American soldier who died in Iraq.
McCaslin and Nethercutt, represent the split in the party on Trump’s ascendancy – Nethercutt said he won’t vote for Trump in November, while McCaslin said she will. But they both said McMorris Rodgers’ tepid support of him could be a liability among conservative voters in the general election.
“Cathy probably can’t afford to offend the Trump supporters by coming out against him,” said Nethercutt.
Nethercutt, who defeated Foley as part of a sweeping new class of young Republican lawmakers, said McMorris Rodgers would be better served distancing herself from the GOP leadership in Washington D.C.
“The people at home want to know you care about them,” Nethercutt said.
Still, he’ll be casting his vote for the congresswoman in November, he said.
McCaslin cautioned against ignoring the agitated wing of the party and electorate.
“I think, with all due respect to the congresswoman, she’s really become an insider in Washington,” McCaslin said. “And in this climate, that is really dangerous for a sitting politician.”
McCaslin said she wasn’t surprised by McMorris Rodgers’ dip at the polls and that the congresswoman may have been vulnerable if there had been “a singular, really strong conservative candidate” running against her.
“I think she could have easily gone that way,” McCaslin said. “She’s very fortunate that she retained her seat.”
McMorris Rodgers was the top vote-getter in all counties in the district. The closest Pakootas came to topping her in the primary was Ferry County, where he got 34.9 percent of the vote compared to McMorris Rodgers’ 39.9 percent.
Dave Moore, chairman of the Spokane County Republican Party, said he’s confident McMorris Rodgers will retain her seat in the general election.
“I think she’s been consistent,” Moore said. “Some people aren’t happy. But she’s doing her job, and she’s in a prominent position. You can’t please everybody.”
Jim CastroLang, chairman of the Spokane County Democratic Party, acknowledged defeating an incumbent would be difficult.
“There’s a lot of work that needs to be done to beat her,” CastroLang said. “I think primary night showed some signs she should be worried.”
Where Pakootas would find the votes to defeat McMorris Rodgers is uncertain.
Which ship will voters jump to?
Pakootas lost district-wide to McMorris Rodgers by about 10 percentage points. Nethercutt trailed Foley by 5 points in 1994, but he had two other Republican candidates in the race to draw supporters from.
Horne, the other Republican running against McMorris Rodgers and a Trump supporter, said he’ll be voting for her, but his campaign strongly criticized her role in party leadership and what he saw as token opposition to President Barack Obama’s legislative agenda.
“I think, if you look at the primary, she’s got a lock on 55 percent,” Horne said. He believed most of his 10 percentage points of the ballot would land in McMorris Rodgers’ column in November, which would be enough to give her a majority of votes cast in the primary.
Independent candidate Dave Wilson ran on a platform of massive change to Congressional representation, saying he would form a “centrist caucus” if elected. He declined to say who he would endorse in the general election and that both candidates “had warts.”
“I still think she would be the odds-on favorite,” Wilson said of McMorris Rodgers. “I still believe in my heart of hearts, it’s very difficult for a Democrat to win here in Eastern Washington.”
Wilson acknowledged the discontent with members of Congress could work against McMorris Rodgers in November. But he said it would likely be difficult for Pakootas to stay in Congress if elected.
“He pretty much toes the party line,” Wilson said of Pakootas. “That’s just not going to fly in Eastern Washington for too long.”
Brudnicki, spokeswoman for Pakootas, said the campaign will also seek additional resources for the general election based on the results of the primary. Pakootas has not received any money yet from the national Democratic Party, according to Federal Election Commission filings, though he has made use of ActBlue, a national fund-raising organization supporting left-leaning candidates.
In her speech Tuesday night after the primary results, McMorris Rodgers noted the frustration of the electorate, which she assigned to federal overreach by the president, not Congress. Whether she can tap into the frustration or it works against her could decide the outcome of the general election.
“I hear the anger from people, and I share this frustration,” she said. “I recognize that we are on the verge of losing representative government.”
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