Lisa Brown rode an apparent blue wave of enthusiasm in Tuesday’s primary election to the best showing a Democrat has ever made against Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers since her first election to Congress 14 years ago.
With Wednesday afternoon’s vote tally, McMorris Rodgers extended her lead over Brown to a little less than 1,300 votes in the 5th Congressional District. The six-term congresswoman remains below 50 percent of the vote as an incumbent in a primary election field that included three other conservatives. The race is being closely watched as Republicans hope to maintain their control of both chambers in Congress following the first midterm election of President Donald Trump’s administration.
McMorris Rodgers and Brown shared congratulations Wednesday as they haggled over the venues and timing of debates this fall. Though the final results are still uncertain, it’s clear that the pair will enter those contests as participants in the closest Congressional race the region has seen in decades.
Here are reasons why either one of them could emerge victorious in the general election in November.
Why McMorris Rodgers will win: The incumbency advantage
It’s a well-observed phenomenon in American politics that members of the U.S. House of Representatives are hard to vote out.
Since 2000, in every election year but one, incumbent members of Congress have been re-elected to their posts at rates greater than 90 percent.
That has to do with name recognition, the ability to reach voters directly through free mail communication and the support of large donors, said Cornell Clayton, director of the Thomas S. Foley Institute of Policy and Public Service at Washington State University.
“Big donors tend to give money to people who are going to be re-elected,” Clayton said.
McMorris Rodgers has used that incumbency advantage to translate primary victories into even larger general election wins, frequently capturing close to 60 percent of the districtwide vote when ballots were tallied in November.
The most recent election when incumbents didn’t do so well? The 2010 campaign, when conservative-leaning lawmakers hit Democrats with a wave of populist sentiment under the banner of the tea party. Even then, 85 percent of representatives kept their seats.
But Clayton said there are shades of a similar wave cresting from progressives that could spell trouble for the congresswoman.
Why Brown will win: Democrats showed up for the primary
Whether Brown emerges victorious in the primary or not, she’ll still have posted the largest share of the vote total as a Democrat in the summer contest than any other McMorris Rodgers challenger to date.
Peter Goldmark was the last to exceed 40 percent of the district’s primary vote back in 2006, when McMorris Rodgers was just a freshman lawmaker seeking her first re-election to Congress. Goldmark lost the general election by 13 percentage points that year.
Brown’s performance came as turnout ballooned districtwide, and in particular in areas where Democrats have traditionally left their ballots on the kitchen table or been outnumbered by Republicans. Turnout in Spokane County topped 44 percent, well above the 27 percent seen statewide. In the 3rd Legislative District, a progressive stronghold in Eastern Washington where Democrats exclusively hold the seats in Olympia, turnout jumped from 30 percent in 2014, the last time a midterm election was held in an off-presidential year, to 40 percent this year, with ballots left to count.
Several features of what Clayton called “wave elections,” which include the Republican revolution led by Newt Gingrich in 1994 and Democrats recapturing Congress in 2006, are present in this year’s cycle.
“What explains wave elections is when Congressional races become nationalized,” he said. “It becomes more about what’s going on at the national level than the local level.”
For the wave to break Brown’s way, however, it will have to overcome the 60/40 split between Republicans and Democrats that has been a hallmark of Congressional elections in Eastern Washington since at least 2004. Turnout in the general election is typically above 50 percent, which means there is about 20 percent of the district’s electorate that will vote in November who didn’t cast a ballot this summer, said Stuart Elway, a longtime Seattle-based pollster whose firm conducted a poll commissioned by The Spokesman-Review and other news outlets in April that suggested the race was close.
“Who are those people? That’s always the big question,” Elway said.
McMorris Rodgers is hoping those people, and those who supported other candidates on the right, will fall into her column.
Why McMorris Rodgers will win: The Republican vote was greater than 50 percent
In spite of the Democratic enthusiasm seen not only in Brown’s totals but down-ticket races throughout Eastern Washington and the state, Republican candidates still captured a majority of the votes cast in the district.
Combining the totals of McMorris Rodgers, Dave Saulibio, Jered Bonneau and Kari Olavi Ilonummi, the GOP accounted for about 53 percent of the vote total in Eastern Washington’s 5th Congressional District. That’s roughly the same percentage of the vote the party won in the 2016 primary contest, which led to the congresswoman winning 60 percent of the vote in the November race against Joe Pakootas.
Republican Tom Horne, who was running to the right of McMorris Rodgers as a staunch supporter of Donald Trump, eventually endorsed and voted for the congresswoman. Saulibio, a self-styled “Trump Populist,” said Wednesday morning he’d do the same.
“The odds of passing Trump’s agenda is far better with Cathy,” Saulibio said. “When push comes to shove, and it’s just Lisa and Cathy, we’ll go for Cathy.”
But Bonneau, who also praised Trump in his campaign and criticized the congresswoman for being out of touch with the district, said he hadn’t made his mind up as of Wednesday morning.
“The people of this district need better representation, and if Cathy wins again it’s a shame,” Bonneau said. The mental health technician at Eastern State Hospital said he and his supporters were ignored by the McMorris Rodgers campaign, and he wasn’t inclined to endorse her because of that lack of support. Bonneau will talk to his supporters and determine whether he’ll endorse the congresswoman, he said.
Democrats are hoping their enthusiasm will trump the tense alliance of conservatives McMorris Rodgers will count on in November.
Why Brown will win: Democrats are energized by Trump, national politics
While Brown didn’t mention the president by name in her speech on primary night, she has frequently attacked McMorris Rodgers on the campaign trail for her ties to the president’s policies and failing, she’s said, to speak up against him.
That dissatisfaction with Trump hasn’t just been seen on street corners during fundraisers McMorris Rodgers has held with high-ranking Republican officials. It’s also been borne out in polling data in the district and could be seen in the results on primary night not only in Spokane, but elsewhere in the state and country, pollster Elway said.
“You’ve got to expect Trump will be a plus in the rural areas of the 5th, but not in Spokane and certainly not in Pullman,” Elway said. Brown carried Whitman and Spokane counties, taking the latter – the district’s most populous county – by nearly 7 percentage points.
Trump carried Washington’s 5th Congressional district by 13 points in 2016. But his job approval ratings have lagged below 50 percent districtwide, and there have been concerns in rural areas of the district about how the president’s trade policies will affect the region’s agricultural industries. McMorris Rodgers, in one of her rare breaks from Trump, has criticized his announced tariffs and the decision to remove the country from the multinational Trans Pacific Partnership deal.
WSU’s Clayton said the president’s approval ratings, ongoing concerns about legal troubles for those in Congressional leadership and frustration with Washington, D.C., politics in general could spell trouble for the congresswoman on par with what happened in the district 24 years ago. That’s the narrative that Democrats, who hope anticipated higher turnout numbers in November will help their cause, intend to push in the coming weeks.
“This should be an easy race for the Republican,” Clayton said. “The fact that you have someone who is polling at about the same level, raising as much or more money than she is, that’s a big warning sign.”
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe now to get breaking news alerts in your email inbox
Get breaking news delivered to your inbox as it happens.