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Shawn Vestal: McMorris Rodgers rode Eastern Washington’s red tide to victory

Cathy McMorris Rodgers supporters let out a big cheer as Lisa Brown concedes the race for  Washington’s 5th Congressional District seat  Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018, at the Davenport Grand Hotel in Spokane, Wash. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

It wasn’t a wave, it was the tide. The regular, recurrent tide.

And it was just as red as the 5th Congressional District usually is.

Before and after the congressional campaign here, the most frequent framing in the media and elsewhere had to do with the relationship between Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers and the blue wave – whether she could “survive” it.

The wave metaphor was applied everywhere, to every race, in every state, by seemingly every media outlet. That was just as true in the 5th District as anywhere else – with the local and national media.

In May, an illustration on the Inlander cover portrayed a smiling Lisa Brown surfing a wave that loomed over a dour McMorris Rodgers making sandcastles on the beach. “The Blue Wave: Can Lisa Brown ride it to Congress?”

Politico, which described McMorris Rodgers as “under siege in both Washingtons” because of controversy over her performance in House leadership, described McMorris Rodgers as “a Republican in a blue-trending state with a Democratic wave potentially on the way.”

Vox put it this way: “A Republican giant faces down the rumbling of a blue wave.”

Even Fox – in a softball profile headlined “Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers: Blazing Trails in Congress” – noted that even though she was then the highest-ranking woman in GOP leadership, “that hasn’t stopped people from asking if she’ll survive 2018.”

The morning after the election, this newspaper ran an illustration showing McMorris Rodgers standing firm as a blue wave washed past.

But McMorris Rodgers didn’t “survive” that wave so much as swamp it with a stronger, higher tide. She survived the blue wave like Gonzaga survived its game with Idaho State. Following a wake-up call in the primary, McMorris Rodgers and the GOP rallied and raised a red tide – the district’s historically reliable conservative foundation – and conducted, more or less, a rout.

Running against perhaps her toughest challenger ever in Brown, a well-known opponent who matched McMorris Rodgers in fundraising prowess (and beat her in fundraising at the grassroots level) and who excited city-center liberals in a way that hasn’t been seen around here for quite a while – and running with the albatross of the Trump presidency hanging around her neck – McMorris Rodgers cruised to victory.

Though some conservatives I talked to before the election predicted a margin like that, they were outliers. The conventional wisdom that I heard most – and that felt truest to me, too – was that McMorris Rodgers would win narrowly, and that Brown was giving her the fight of her life. That view was bolstered by a remarkably close primary and some close early polling.

But the story changed, even if a lot of people’s presumptions didn’t. McMorris Rodgers defeated Brown by a margin of nearly 11 points. That’s a smaller advantage than she’s had in the past several elections – where she was a 3-2 winner or more – but by no means a small advantage. She won every county, including Spokane County. And the GOP nearly ran the table in the rest of the races, which is also not unusual.

This is not to say that all the wave talk was necessarily incorrect, or to pick nits over headlines. There were indeed predictions of a blue wave, and the predictions were borne out all over the country.

But that wave barely touched the shores of the 5th District. The New York Times quantified the wave, finding that 317 congressional districts – including the 5th – swung to the left in this election. Obviously, the Democrats nationally flipped a lot of seats, retook the majority in the House of Representatives and showed a lot of signs of life even in defeat.

But the shift here was small – small after a huge effort. And it might reflect the differences in candidates between the last election and this one, or any number of other elements besides a fundamental shift in the district’s DNA, which seemed to be what some believed was happening.

If there was a wave here, it was small. And the dominating performance by McMorris Rodgers and Eastern Washington Republicans was no form of survival.

It was an assertion of the district’s essential political nature and of her strength here. The only waves of blue in the district were in the middle of Spokane. Everywhere else, it was the regular motion of the red tide.

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