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Shawn Vestal: At long last, a great race in the 5th District

UPDATED: Tue., Nov. 6, 2018, 9:59 p.m.

Shawn Vestal
Shawn Vestal

It was the campaign the 5th District voters deserved – the first great House race here in decades.

In almost every way, the contest between Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and challenger Lisa Brown has been a more positive, more passionate and less cynical electoral exercise than our current moment would give us the right to expect.

McMorris Rodgers triumphed with room to spare, winning even in Spokane County while cruising to a 10-point advantage. Still, it has been the fight of her political life and one thing is sure: It will be harder for critics to dismiss her as a lightweight now, because she won a heavyweight bout.

The candidates ran hard and relatively clean campaigns. (Clean-ish, at least, by prevailing standards.) The differences between them were clear-cut and well-argued. And citizen engagement was through the roof, with voters casting so many ballots that it seemed more like a presidential election than a midterm.

Following far too many lethargic, foregone-conclusion House elections, this great race was good for the district’s civic soul – and that’s true, I think, even if everything didn’t go your way.

“We’re just not used to having a competitive race,” said Travis Ridout, the Thomas S. Foley Distinguished Professor of Politics and Public Policy at Washington State University. “There was some excitement that we haven’t seen in a long time.”

Ridout credits the congressional race as the primary driver of the incredible early returns this year. The ballot was stacked with important stuff this time around – from gun-control initiatives to legislative races to that ingenious but overly complicated package of city-school projects – but the congressional race, connecting directly as it did to the Trump effect, was the top of the ticket.

“I think it’s been good for the district to have a real race,” Ridout said. “It forced the incumbent to pay attention to the district in a way she hasn’t had to in the last five, six, seven elections.”

The race was less nasty, overall, than I expected. There was definitely some kidney-punching and truth-twisting, but I’d have predicted more aggressive nastiness six months ago. I asked Ridout if he shared that view and he said he thought it had been “a little less negative” than usual – and offered some reasons.

Chief among them was the general absence of outside money from independent committees. The ugliest attacks usually come from them, and we just didn’t see much of that money in the congressional race. What mud there was came with the candidates’ formal endorsements.

For my money, the worst single ad in the race was the flyer McMorris Rodgers put out trying to make Brown look “dangerously” pro-pedophile. But McMorris Rodgers dropped that line of attack, and later told the Inlander that she regretted the tone of it.

I frankly didn’t see a similar line of attack from Brown. McMorris Rodgers and her supporters might consider the claims that she voted to take health care away from people to be unfair, but they relied – as did McMorris Rodgers ads regarding Brown’s record on voting for tax-raising budgets – on a clear-cut voting record.

But neither campaign sunk anywhere near as low as this election season’s dirtiest trick: the effort by the West Side conservative gadfly Glen Morgan, whose flyers attempting to trick progressives into writing in other candidates to steal votes from Democrats in legislative races – and compounded by Morgan’s bald-face insistence that it was all just an effort to give voters more options – were far and away the year’s slimiest.

In the congressional race, by contrast, a lot of the negative stuff was fairly standard political fare. Plenty of the TV ads were nearly boilerplate – critiques of Brown as an inveterate tax-and-spender, critiques of McMorris Rodgers as one who wants to gut social services to give tax breaks to the rich.

They seemed almost quaint, in the era of raging immigration scares and fearmongering conspiracy theories.

The shadow of Trump fell fairly lightly on the race – maybe more lightly than it should have. Ridout said both candidates were running toward the middle with fairly strong base support, so there was less political advantage to vociferously attacking or passionately defending the president for either of them.

Overall, though, what made it a great race was a lot of citizens gave a damn and showed it. Some of them are happy now, and some are disappointed, but everyone should recognize that it was, at long last, a great race in the 5th District.

In the end, it wasn’t blue. But it was definitely a wave.


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