With Spokane voters turning in their ballots at a record pace for the midterm elections, supporters of the two top-ticket 5th Congressional District candidates said this week that President Donald Trump had varying effects on their motivation to vote.
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Lisa Brown have run a slate of television ads criticizing one another’s records. For the most part, though, the candidates and their campaigns have veered from mentioning a president that polling suggests is unpopular in the district, despite his victory among Eastern Washington voters in the 2016 contest by 13 percentage points over Hillary Clinton.
Supporters interviewed this week in Spokane showed a distinct split over how much they’d been thinking about the president as they decided how to vote, with Republicans saying they were more concerned with maintaining a conservative lawmaking majority, while Democrats pointed to Trump as a main reason change is needed in Congress.
“I’m looking more at maintaining a conservative approach to government,” said Robert Frank, a McMorris Rodgers supporter in Spokane Valley. “Trump will come, and Trump will go.”
The president has inserted himself into the midterm discussion, telling reporters last month he believed he was helping GOP members of the House of Representatives and wouldn’t accept blame if they failed to hold the majority. Trump criticized House Speaker Paul Ryan on Wednesday for not focusing enough on maintaining a Republican hold on the chamber after Ryan questioned the legality of the president’s proposed executive order on birthright citizenship.
Trump later told reporters he wouldn’t blame anyone if a blue wave put control of the House back in Democratic hands.
Midterm re-elections are rarely kind to the president’s party.
President Barack Obama, in the first midterm after his election in 2008, saw the Democratic Party lose control of the House and six seats in the Senate in a trouncing by Republicans. House Speaker Rep. Tom Foley, approaching 30 years in Congress as Eastern Washington’s representative, was voted out in the first midterm of Bill Clinton’s presidency in 1994.
The pattern doesn’t always hold. George W. Bush saw gains in both chambers during the 2002 midterm campaign, just one year after the 9/11 attacks.
Frank said he supported Trump’s judicial selections, including recently confirmed Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, and pointed to an economy that continues to grow under the Trump administration. But he acknowledged that he doesn’t care for the entirety of the president’s rhetoric, a position McMorris Rodgers has also taken on certain issues.
“I kind of like (Paul) Ryan’s perspective,” Frank said. “(Trump’s) a person who is a reactionary. You have to separate his comments from everything he has actually done.”
Lori Sullivan, a longtime Democrat and union supporter living on Spokane’s North Side, said it is precisely that rhetoric that concerns her.
“I would hope that they are paying very close attention” to what Trump says and does, Sullivan said of the district’s voters.
“I believe he’s already committed impeachable offenses,” Sullivan said. “He lies to the American people.”
Sullivan said she’s a supporter of Brown because of her legislative record and accomplishments. But, she said, she has concerns about Trump’s language about Democrats ahead of the midterm elections.
She referenced remarks the president made during the annual Easter Egg roll event at the White House in April when the president responded to a question from reporters about a program launched under Obama to defer deportations for those brought to the country illegally as children.
“He talked about the Democrats like he was talking about the enemy,” Sullivan said.
Brown said in a statement through a spokeswoman Thursday that she wasn’t closing the door on impeachment if elected but stressed that an investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia should continue.
“I’m open to that, but I wouldn’t make a decision until we get information back from the investigation,” Brown said in the statement. “There’s a lot of smoke, we’ll see if there’s fire.”
The specter of impeachment is not without some backing. A Washington Post-ABC News poll found in August that close to half of respondents believed the House should begin impeachment proceedings. Last November a group of 18 Democratic lawmakers, including Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Seattle, introduced articles of impeachment against Trump, the first step in a lengthy process that has gone nowhere in the GOP-controlled Capitol.
An April poll of voters in the district, conducted by the firm Elway Research and commissioned by The Spokesman-Review, KHQ-TV and other media outlets, found that half of respondents disapproved of the job the president was doing, while 45 percent said they approved his work.
Bill Scheres, a McMorris Rodgers supporter who lives in the Bemiss neighborhood, said he wasn’t concerned about those Democratic efforts and they weren’t motivating his vote in the race, though he also supports Trump.
“All they do is bash Trump,” Scheres said of Democrats. “He could cure cancer and they’d vote against him.”
Scheres’ close neighbors, Beverly and Ken Varcoe, said they didn’t agree with the president on everything and his presidency wasn’t motivating their vote for McMorris Rodgers. Instead, it was her stance on issues such as her opposition to abortion rights, and what they saw as a push toward sustainable spending on health care in America. A vote for the congresswoman wasn’t a vote to protect Trump, Beverly Varcoe said.
“I don’t feel it’s that,” she said. “We want to protect a more conservative government approach.”
McMorris Rodgers has had a somewhat complicated relationship with the president from the time he became the presumptive Republican nominee for the office in May 2016. In her initial endorsement of Trump posted to Facebook, she said she had “not exactly” cast her ballot with enthusiasm for the real estate mogul.
Since then, she was briefly floated as a potential Cabinet member in the Trump administration, appeared at his Mar-a-Lago estate after the election in 2016 and brought several of his surrogates to Spokane during this campaign cycle, all the while praising his disruption of the Washington, D.C., status quo at events this fall.
As recently as last week, McMorris Rodgers was telling a group of supporters in rural Lincoln County that the country might be concerned with Trump’s tweets, but in Congress the focus was on Republican legislative priorities.
Brown supporters said those words were posturing and pointed to McMorris Rodgers’ voting record aligning with Trump at a clip approaching 98 percent, according to the statistical analysis website FiveThirtyEight.
“I don’t think the Republicans trust him,” said Kay McGlocklin, who runs the firm Preferred Labor Sign Association based in the Logan Neighborhood. “But they allow him to get away with it.”
McGlocklin’s home is off Pines Road in Spokane Valley, where signs she’s produced for the Brown campaign and other Democrats hang with posters for Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich, a Republican. She said she’s personally known and supported Brown for years, a relationship that’s not unique to the Democrat in the race.
Paul Kittredge, a Spokane Valley supporter of McMorris Rodgers who lives near Bowdish Middle School, called the congresswoman “as honest as the day is long.” He said his family has known her for years through church and prayer groups.
“Some of the things he says, I don’t particularly like,” Kittredge said of the president.
But his vote for McMorris Rodgers in Congress isn’t influenced by concerns about, or support for, the president, he said.
“I vote for the person,” Kittredge said.
One of the things Brown and McMorris Rodgers agreed upon was the lack of communication and respect between those of opposing viewpoints. Many Republicans pointed to the approach of Democrats to Kavanaugh’s nomination, Trump’s divisive pick for the court who was confirmed with a just single vote from the other side of the aisle, while Brown supporters were more likely to lay the blame at the feet of the president.
“More than the fact that I’m voting for Lisa Brown, or voting against McMorris Rodgers, I’m voting against toxic conservatism,” said Ben Parsons, a 22-year-old renter in the Garland Neighborhood who moved to Spokane from Walla Walla. “Trump is basically the flagship leader of that, and that’s a pretty big mark against him, in my book.”
“They tried to ruin that man’s life,” said McMorris Rodgers supporter Scheres of the Kavanaugh vote. “I used to be a Kennedy Democrat. Now, I won’t go near them.”
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