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Shawn Vestal: Nethercutt looks back on his time as a ‘giant killer’

George Nethercutt remembers his victory over Tom Foley in a 1994 congressional campaign race during an interview Thursday in downtown Spokane. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
George Nethercutt remembers his victory over Tom Foley in a 1994 congressional campaign race during an interview Thursday in downtown Spokane. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

It was the first debate of the 5th Congressional District campaign, at Walla Walla’s Exchange Club.

The congressional veteran versus the newcomer. The long-serving Speaker of the House versus a political rookie making the case for change.

Nethercutt versus Foley.

“Tom came in, he looked 20 feet tall,” George Nethercutt said this week in an interview. “It’s like, I’m getting in the ring with Mike Tyson and I’m gonna get hurt.”

Except Nethercutt didn’t get hurt. He avoided a knockout – “I didn’t say anything too stupid” – and went on, over the course of that summer and fall of 1994, to stay on his feet and defeat Foley in a race so tight it squeaked.

It was a stunner, the first time a sitting House Speaker had been ousted since 1860, and one of most remarkable victories of the Republican wave of 1994, which swept the country and Washington state. Foley had been in office for 30 years, since defeating Walt Horan in 1964.

Nethercutt was hailed as “George, the Giant Killer” in the Washington Post and newspapers around the country, and regionally, his election was the first of 12 straight Republican victories in the 5th District.

Now, his successor, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, faces the biggest challenge of her political career so far from Democrat Lisa Brown, and a lot of people are looking for parallels in the two races. Nethercutt sat down to talk about the races in an interview Thursday in the downtown offices of Lee & Hayes.

“I think there are some similarities,” he said, “but it’s not a carbon copy.”

The current race, and the way people are seeking and finding comparisons with 1994, has led to Nethercutt spending more time “thinking about how I won the darn thing.”

One factor was that, as Foley served longer and longer and became a part of House Democratic leadership, a tension arose between Foley’s obligations to his constituents back home in a district Nethercutt views as essentially conservative, and his obligations as a leader of the House Democratic majority.

This left him vulnerable to criticisms of being out of touch, rarely home among his constituents, co-opted by the D.C. machine. Nethercutt capitalized on this with his slogan: “We don’t need a Speaker … We need a listener.”

Nethercutt said McMorris Rodgers faces a similar kind of headwind. Trump is not broadly popular, and inspires passionate opposition – he hangs like an albatross around the neck of incumbent Republicans in Congress, though just how large an albatross remains to be seen. And while McMorris Rodgers has climbed to national prominence – as the chair of the House Republican Conference, she is the highest-ranking woman in Congress – she has been critiqued as out of touch, rarely home, co-opted by the machine.

Nethercutt did not criticize McMorris Rodgers in those terms. He says he believes she will win in November. But he said that she must balance the obligations, and keep people in Eastern Washington at the forefront.

“I think Cathy has a fine line to walk,” he said.

Any analysis of the 1994 race – or comparison to this year – runs the risk of oversimplification. Nethercutt’s victory has often been dragooned into service as an example of the NRA’s political might, because the gun-rights lobby went after Foley hard for supporting an assault-weapons ban. There is surely truth to that, but there were many other factors, from Foley’s unsuccessful opposition to term limits to some of the high-powered political help Nethercutt was able to draw on to the series of nine debates where Nethercutt kept his foot out of his mouth.

For more detail, check out reporter Jim Camden’s extensive, fascinating story on the race, which ran in Sunday’s Spokesman-Review. Suffice it to say, as journalist and University of Idaho professor Kenton Bird wrote in a piece for Pacific Northwest Quarterly: “No single miscalculation on Foley’s part caused his defeat. The cumulative effect of a half-dozen issues toppled the Speaker.”

At 73, Nethercutt is far from retired. He has an organization devoted to teaching civics to young people. He has taught at Harvard’s Kennedy School and is working on a book about the state of American patriotism. He writes columns for the Inlander and the Hill. He returns to Spokane and his office at Lee & Hayes about a week each month, and he and his wife split their time among homes in Virginia, South Carolina, Denver and the Inland Northwest.

To this day, when he’s here, he is greeted all over town with warm familiarity.

“I like seeing people on the street,” he said. “I had two bus drivers wave at me the other day. I love that. I love when people call me George.”

Nethercutt has a particularly genial, accommodating manner that was among his greatest strengths as a politician. He mourns a lost time of greater civility in politics, and likes to talk about how the spirit of compromise has vanished.

He recalls his 1994 race as a kinder, gentler campaign.

“I didn’t say he was a bad person, he’s a crook, he’s a lousy leader,” Nethercutt said. “I said he’s a nice man, but he’s been serving the region for 30 years and it’s time for a change.”

And after he slayed the giant, he fed the giant.

“I took him out to lunch after the election,” Nethercutt said. “We had a nice visit. Just as he had taken out Walt Horan after he beat him in 1964.”