For the men seeking to oust Cathy McMorris Rodgers from Congress, the August primary has become a numbers game.
An independent, a Libertarian and another Republican all hope to capture enough of the votes from a seemingly dissatisfied electorate to finish second on the ballot and advance to the November contest for Washington’s 5th Congressional District.
“Our biggest challenge is getting through the primary,” said Dave Wilson, who is once more running on an independent platform, calling for a centrist caucus in Congress. Wilson, 61, earned 16,382 votes in the August 2014 primary, finishing third behind Democrat Joe Pakootas by roughly 25,000 votes.
Wilson, who began his ground game in earnest earlier this year by holding town halls throughout the district and appearing at major downtown events, such as Hoopfest and the Pride Parade, said an early start and wearing down shoe leather by walking door-to-door was essential for an independent candidate.
“We know we have to earn every vote,” he said.
Pakootas, who was defeated by 21 percentage points in his 2014 general election campaign against McMorris Rodgers, said he’s optimistic.
“I don’t know if there’s really one thing I learned from last time,” Pakootas, 58, said. “We’re just trying to be diligent in the work that we’re doing and making sure that our issues are out front.”
After multiple requests for an interview, officials representing McMorris Rodgers, 47, said the lawmaker was unavailable. Her office provided answers to policy position questions regarding gun control efforts, the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement and marijuana reclassification, among other issues. At a campaign kickoff event held in Spokane in March, the five-term congresswoman acknowledged an antsy electorate.
“I think, like many of you, this is a really important election,” she said then. “I also believe that, as a country, we feel like our foundation is cracking.”
Tom Horne, who is running once more as a Republican alternative to McMorris Rodgers, and newcomer Krystol McGee, running as a Libertarian, said they hope those concerns from voters will lead to success for non-traditional candidates.
“The Republican establishment is out of touch,” said Horne, 67, who earned 8 percent of the vote for a 4th-place finish in the 2014 primary behind McMorris Rodgers, Pakootas and Wilson. “And Cathy’s a thorough-going member of the Republican establishment.”
McGee, a 60-year-old truck driver from Spokane Valley, called his decision to run a “spur of the moment” choice. He was listening to the presidential debates in the cab of his truck and found himself dissatisfied with what the major candidates were saying.
“I’m hoping for people that are totally pissed off at their parties,” said McGee, who described himself as a lifelong Republican who voted for Nixon in the 1970s. He said this year he was voting for Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson.
McMorris Rodgers has given her uneasy support to presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump, while Horne said he’ll wholeheartedly vote for the New York real estate tycoon because he believes Trump will pick the best nominees for the Supreme Court to preserve individual freedom.
Pakootas said this week he’s waiting for the outcome of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia at the end of this month before announcing his endorsement, but it would likely be Hillary Clinton. The enterprise executive officer for the Nez Perce Tribe introduced Sen. Bernie Sanders at a Spokane rally in March, before Clinton earned enough delegates through caucuses and primaries to virtually assure the nomination.
Wilson said he believed 2014 was a great year for independent candidates, like himself, but the turmoil of 2016 has led him to be even more optimistic going into August.
“That’s just luck,” Wilson said. “It’s not like I switched horses.”
Wilson has maintained his campaign strategy of two years ago, holding town halls focused on issues including campaign finance laws, which he says are the biggest obstacle to an independent candidate making it to Washington, D.C. An independent has never been elected to Congress from Washington state.
That strategy includes approaching voters on both sides of the aisle. Wilson has called into question the endorsements touted by Pakootas, saying some of those organizations are disqualified from endorsing a candidate due to their tax-exempt status, including the League of Women Voters. Pakootas denies the claims his endorsements are disingenuous.
Libertarian McGee said he knows his candidacy is a long shot, but he believes there are enough disaffected voters out there to fuel a candidate who believes in individual gun rights, dismantling the IRS and also doing away with strict sentences for drug offenders, including those incarcerated for marijuana-related crimes.
“I know I’ve got a snowball’s chance, but that snowball is getting bigger,” McGee said.
Horne said he started his campaign earlier this year and is encouraged by additional candidates in the race.
“In reality, we’re all going for second place,” he said. “The more people in the race, the lower the bar is for getting through.”
McMorris Rodgers has a commanding lead in fundraising, reporting $565,000 in individual contributions and nearly $800,000 from political committees through the end of March, the most recent date of filing with the Federal Election Commission. Wilson reported $109,000 in contributions, nearly 90 percent of which was a loan he made to his own campaign. Pakootas reported $95,000 in fundraising through the end of March, while Horne and McGee reported negligible or no fundraising during that period.
“She outspent me 12-to-1 in the last election,” Pakootas said of McMorris Rodgers. “Most likely she’ll be outspending me this election. Our strategy wasn’t to be spending a whole lot of money, but to get out the word.”
Washington’s 5th Congressional District encompasses Spokane, Stevens, Ferry, Pend Oreille, Lincoln, Whitman, Asotin, Garfield, Columbia counties, and parts of Walla Walla County. The Census Bureau estimates the population of the district is about 690,518 people.
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