The final votes in Eastern Washington’s Congressional contest that unofficially began 15 months ago will be cast Tuesday.
Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers is aiming for her eighth stint in the nation’s capitol, but to do so she’ll have to defeat Lisa Brown, her most formidable Democratic opponent to date.
The two got their political start in the early 1990s in the Washington Legislature, following different paths to a race that is being closely watched as part of a potential switch in Congressional leadership just two years into President Donald Trump’s first term.
The campaign has been tense at times, with both McMorris Rodgers and Brown running ads that have cost millions of dollars in an attempt to paint the opponent as wrong for Eastern Washington’s voters.
Brown has borrowed a tactic from George Nethercutt, the unlikely Republican victor in a 1994 race that saw the ouster of Democratic House Speaker Tom Foley, by arguing McMorris Rodgers has lost touch with the district during her long Congressional career.
McMorris Rodgers, by contrast, has pointed not only to Brown’s time in the Legislature, but also her early academic and activist career as evidence the Democrat is ideologically distinct from the district’s conservative-leaning majority.
Nethercutt said he saw some parallels between his own improbable race against Foley and this year’s contest. But he predicted a victory for McMorris Rodgers, who he said was more representative, ideologically, of the district.
“I think she has paid more attention to the district, because she’s been challenged seriously,” Nethercutt said of the congresswoman. “Before, she wasn’t challenged seriously in my opinion.”
The race has been tight since Brown announced her candidacy last summer, as evidenced in polls commissioned by The Spokesman-Review and other news outlets earlier this year as well as the results of the August blanket primary. McMorris Rodgers captured 49.3 percent of that vote with two other Republicans in the contest, and Brown has launched a get-out-the-vote ground game at local universities and colleges as well as a fundraising push that has narrowed the gap in campaign cash ahead of the election.
Still, national observers are calling McMorris Rodgers the favorite to retain her seat, even as the congresswoman spends more than she ever has and has received backing from prominent and ideologically distinct Republicans for this year’s contest.
The Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan election analysis firm, rates the contest as “lean Republican,” one step from its toss-up category. The statistical and poll analysis firm FiveThirtyEight gives Brown a 23.5 percent chance of winning the race, while also reporting based on polling data that Democrats have an 87.5 percent chance of regaining control of the House of Representatives for the first time since 2010.
The national arm of the two political parties have been keenly interested in the race for months, despite the lack of the same type of outside spending other competitive contests in Washington state have seen. That has included a field office from the Congressional Leadership Fund, a Republican super PAC that set up office in Spokane earlier this year to work on behalf of McMorris Rodgers, and significant financial support from national Democrats (most prominently Nancy Pelosi) to the Brown campaign.
When Nethercutt won his election in 1994, it was during the first midterm of the Bill Clinton presidency. Clinton’s approval numbers in the run-up to the November elections lagged well below 50 percent at points, just as poll numbers today indicate a divided opinion of the Trump presidency.
Nethercutt said Monday that McMorris Rodgers had handled her relationship with the president well ahead of the midterms.
“Cathy’s done a good job of walking a fine line,” Nethercutt said. “You don’t want to alienate his voters, but you don’t want to embrace him 100 percent.”
McMorris Rodgers supporters in Spokane reached last week said they were motivated by a desire to maintain their majority in Congress, while Democrats were far more likely to criticize the president when talking about the election.
Whatever the outcome, it’s unlikely Eastern Washington voters will know definitively Tuesday night which of the candidates will emerge victorious. Early turnout has been heavy in Spokane County, but it was also strong in August and late ballots landed decisively in McMorris Rodgers’ favor, pushing a 0.4 percentage point lead on election night to nearly 4 percentage points by the time results were certified a few weeks later.
Brown will gather with other Democrats for a watch party Tuesday night at the old Masonic temple downtown, while McMorris Rodgers is scheduled to view the results several blocks east at the Davenport Grand Hotel’s ballroom.
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