U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers on Thursday called the 2016 presidential election “uncharted territory” because of the anger and frustration inspired by contentious races for the White House.
“This is unlike any other presidential election that we’ve seen, really on both sides of the aisle in that regard,” McMorris Rodgers said.
The highest-ranking Republican woman in the House of Representatives has been critical of frontrunner Donald Trump’s comments about women, recently quoted in The New York Times saying they’ve been “inappropriate” and “hurtful.”
But at an event kicking off her seventh campaign for Congress at the Davenport Grand Hotel in Spokane on Thursday, McMorris Rodgers followed a pattern among GOP lawmakers and declined to say whether she’d back the real estate mogul if he’s at the top of the ticket in November.
“I’m just taking this one day at a time,” McMorris Rodgers said. “We have a long way to go.”
McMorris Rodgers disputed reports from The Huffington Post that top Republicans discussed Trump’s candidacy at a closed-door annual summit of conservatives held in early March off the coast of Georgia. She said she didn’t see any evidence of that during the three-day event.
At the American Enterprise Institute’s World Forum, McMorris Rodgers served on a panel that included Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker and political theorist Charles Murray on reform in America’s education system, according to a copy of the agenda that was leaked to the Huffington Post.
“It’s really focused on the major issues of the day,” she said.
Geoffrey Skelley, a political analyst at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said it’s unsurprising McMorris Rodgers and other members of the Republican party leadership have not taken a solid stance of support or opposition to Trump’s candidacy.
“It’s a situation where most members of Congress recognize that Trump appears to be politically dangerous to them, and their futures,” Skelley said, citing a report published Thursday by the center showing that if Trump and Clinton face off, 347 electoral votes likely would go to Clinton.
“That would have ramifications for Republicans down-ballot, especially McMorris Rodgers, who I would imagine has ambitions to rise further,” Skelley said.
Kevin Pirch, chair of the Political Science Department at Eastern Washington University, said McMorris Rodgers would likely have little to gain announcing support for a candidate right now.
“The party is too divided and the outcome is too uncertain to see any real personal political benefit from backing a candidate right now,” Pirch wrote in an email.
Tom Horne, the Kettle Falls Republican who is again vying against McMorris Rodgers for the GOP nomination after earning 8 percent of the primary vote in 2014, said McMorris Rodgers had a duty to inform constituents whom she supported.
“Cathy’s not running for private citizen, and people that are going to vote for her deserve to know where her head’s at,” Horne, a Ted Cruz supporter, said. “So her choice for president is a pertinent question.”
The McMorris Rodgers event at the Davenport Grand was well-attended by local Republican officials, including Spokane Mayor David Condon, State Sen. Michael Baumgartner, Spokane County Commissioners Shelly O’Quinn and Nancy McLaughlin and Spokane County Prosecutor Larry Haskell. The congresswoman told the crowd she believed she had unfinished business in Washington, D.C., and cited budget reform and asserting the role of Congress in response to President Barack Obama’s use of executive orders as key issues in her campaign.
“From my perspective, too much of the federal budget is on autopilot,” McMorris Rodgers said in an interview. She’s proposed legislation, sponsored exclusively by Republicans, that would call for the suspension of government spending on so-called “unauthorized programs,” or services Congress has not explicitly approved. In 2015, those programs accounted for about $294 billion in government spending, according to a Congressional Budget Office report.
Across Spokane Falls Boulevard on Thursday morning, about a dozen people held signs of support for Democrat Joe Pakootas and slogans such as “Dump Cathy.” Pakootas, who lost to McMorris Rodgers in 2014 with 40 percent of the vote, criticized her budget bill in a phone interview later Thursday, saying he believed it had the potential to cut programs and services that assist the poor and veterans.
“It’s going to affect Eastern Washington greatly,” Pakootas said.
Pakootas, who recently took a job with the Nez Perce tribe handling their business ventures, also declined to say which presidential candidate on the Democratic ticket he was supporting, though he introduced Bernie Sanders at an event in Spokane earlier in March.
Independent Dave Wilson also is making his second run for McMorris Rodgers’ seat and was traveling Thursday to a scheduled town hall meeting in Walla Walla. He said the uncertainty and animosity surrounding the presidential campaign had led many of the voters he spoke with to feel disenchanted with the parties and helped his chances of surviving a primary.
“I’ve been telling people I was two years too early,” said Wilson, who earned about 12 percent of the primary vote in August 2014. Wilson said he didn’t intend to endorse a candidate from either party.
Federal Election Commission reports show McMorris Rodgers has a massive lead in fundraising for the 2016 campaign. She reported raising $353,747 last year, more than eight times the combined fundraising of her competitors. Pakootas raised $30,211; Wilson reported $10,550; and Tom Horne turned in no fundraising total through Dec. 31, when the last available reports were due.
McMorris Rodgers was joined on the campaign trial Thursday morning by her three children, all born during her time in Congress. Her 8-year-old son, Cole, led the event with a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance.
“It just makes it a lot more fun for me,” said McMorris Rodgers. “It’s great to be able to expose them to a little bit more of what I do.”
The first- and second-place candidates in the Aug. 2 primary will face each other in the November election.
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