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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: It’s early, but Stuckart’s heartened by polling

UPDATED: Thu., June 1, 2017

Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart at a town hall in April, before announcing he’d be dropping out of the 5th Congressional District race. Stuckart gave $2,000 to two of his colleagues on the City Council out of his campaign warchest to assist their re-election bids. Tyler Tjomsland/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Spokane City Council President Ben Stuckart at a town hall in April, before announcing he’d be dropping out of the 5th Congressional District race. Stuckart gave $2,000 to two of his colleagues on the City Council out of his campaign warchest to assist their re-election bids. Tyler Tjomsland/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

The election is 18 months away, but Ben Stuckart is finding fodder for optimism in early polling on his effort to unseat Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers.

A survey conducted by his campaign shows Rodgers with a lead of 7 percentage points over Stuckart, the president of the Spokane City Council and Democratic candidate for Congress.

That’s a much narrower advantage than McMorris Rodgers – who has been an election juggernaut since taking office in 2005 – has held over any Democrat in any election. She has claimed more than 60 percent of the vote in each of her five elections, reliably winning by 20 points or more.

The poll also took the region’s pulse on a piece of key political intrigue: the possibility that Lisa Brown, the former Senate majority leader and chancellor of Washington State University Spokane, will enter the race as a Democrat. Stuckart’s polling showed that in a three-way race, McMorris Rodgers drew 41 percent support, Stuckart had 30 percent and Brown collected 20 percent.

This far out, those numbers are more interesting than dependable as predictions. The poll, conducted by EMC Research, surveyed 400 people in Eastern Washington’s 5th Congressional District and has a margin of error of 4.9 percent. It is just one snapshot at a very early stage with a relatively large margin of error – the worst-case scenario for Stuckart with that margin is that he’s 17 points behind McMorris Rodgers, but in the best-case scenario he’s actually ahead.

In any case, the poll suggests there is truth to the conventional wisdom that McMorris Rodgers is more vulnerable than she’s been in years, and there are strong hints as to why: Among likely voters, the most important problems identified were “Healthcare/Healthcare amendments” and “Government/Trump.”

Those answers do not bode well for McMorris Rodgers, who has steadfastly backed the House’s widely unpopular American Health Care Act, and hitched her political wagon to Trump’s star. Thirty-seven percent of respondents gave McMorris Rodgers a good or excellent job rating – the same percentage as those who gave her a poor rating. Twenty-two percent chose “only fair.” Meanwhile, her overall favorable/unfavorable ratings were evenly split at 48 percent each.

“I think it’s way too early to put much stock in the polls, but I do think you can predict with confidence that whoever Cathy McMorris Rodgers runs against, she’s going to have a tougher time,” said Cornell Clayton, the director of the Thomas S. Foley Institute of Public Policy and Public Service at WSU.

He said several factors combine to put GOP incumbents like McMorris Rodgers into difficult electoral positions right now – the typical back swing against the incumbent party in midterm elections, the poorly received AHCA and a rocky start to the Trump administration.

“Just to put it in perspective, Trump now has the same favorability ratings as Bill Clinton did at the same stage in his presidency,” Clayton wrote in an email message. “In that midterm, 1994, you had a huge wave election that swept Tom Foley out of office and Newt Gingrich into the speakership. So that is the kind of headwind that (McMorris Rodgers) will be facing next year.”

Furthermore, the political calculus is liable to get more difficult as the investigation into Russian election meddling continues. Depending on how the special prosecutor and congressional investigations develop, GOP members of Congress may find themselves increasingly backed into a corner with regard to their support for – or opposition to – the president.

“Either way, it’s going to work against her,” Clayton said. “There’s no question she’s vulnerable.”

Stuckart has been pushing early and hard to establish his campaign, traveling the district and meeting voters – and criticizing McMorris Rodgers. He said the head-to-head polling between them, as early as it is, shows he’s got a stronger shot at unseating her than any recent opponent.

“My takeaway is we’re really close a year and a half out, which is very good news,” he said. “If we can get our message out, we can win.”

Stuckart obviously sees the polling as good news for his campaign, which is why he wanted to make it public. He said major Democratic groups and donors – who have often invested little in Eastern Washington Democrats – are beginning to see the 5th as a possible place to flip a seat.

Among the findings: Both Stuckart and Brown had favorable ratings of 21 percent. His unfavorable figure was 16 percent, higher than her 9 percent, but both had large numbers of respondents who did not have an impression one way or the other.

He said the high percentage of people who identified health care as the top problem Congress needs to solve works in his favor; he is supporting a Medicare-for-all form of universal coverage. In the poll, after respondents were read Stuckart’s “messaging” on health care and other issues, support for him rose to 51 percent.

“People want to get profit out of health care,” he said. “I think the polling confirms that.”

Brown said Wednesday that she is sticking to the same timeline she has announced earlier: announcing whether she’s running once a new chancellor at WSU Spokane is in place in September.

“If I’m not even in the race and I’m already third, I guess I feel pretty good about that,” she said.

The poll also took the region’s temperature on Trump. Twenty-six percent of respondents had a strongly favorable view of Trump, and 20 percent had a somewhat favorable view. But 45 percent had a strongly unfavorable view, and 6 percent had a somewhat unfavorable view.

A spokeswoman for McMorris Rodgers did not return messages seeking comment. She and Brown will doubtlessly do their own due diligence on voters and their attitudes, and those attitudes are likely to change as the campaigns intensify.

We do know one thing for certain, though: It’s going to be a fascinating year.

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