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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Primary shows Rep. Matt Shea remains big influence in GOP politics in Spokane Valley

 (Molly Quinn / The Spokesman-Review)

While Matt Shea isn’t running for re-election, his influence can still be felt throughout Spokane Valley’s 4th Legislative District.

Shea’s choice to replace him in the state House, former Spokane County Treasurer Rob Chase, has embraced the comparisons between him and Shea. Chase’s campaign highlighted endorsements he received from Shea and legislative ally Bob McCaslin Jr..

Democrats and some moderate Republicans claim McCaslin and Chase share Shea’s mindset, which they say is divisive and dangerous. Their supporters say Shea is misunderstood and Chase and McCaslin have true conservative values.

Republican voters in the primary clearly preferred McCaslin and Chase. Chase finished close behind Democrat Lance Gurel in a three-way race for one state House seat and McCaslin topped Democrat Lori Feagan in a four-candidate race for another. The top two candidates in each race face off in November.

While opponents say the results are due to poor turnout and polarization, supporters say the outcome is just a reflection of what voters want.

Before Tuesday night’s results, Chase and his GOP opponent, Leonard Christian, said they expected they would face Gurel in the general election, but were unsure which group of Republicans in the 4th Legislative District, which includes Mount Spokane, Newman Lake, Green Bluff, Spokane Valley and Liberty Lake, would win.

Results show Christian brought in about 26% of votes, Chase about 33%.

Christian said Shea’s supporters would “crawl over broken glass” to vote for his replacement and said he hoped that a contingent of Republicans would come out for a reasonable alternative who stayed focused on local issues.

Shea, who chose not to run for re-election, was first elected in the district in 2008 and was expelled from the House Republican caucus last year after an independent investigation found his role in a 2016 armed takeover of an Oregon wildlife refuge amounted to “an act of domestic terrorism against the United States.” His rise has divided Republicans locally, with some such as Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich calling his growing influence and supporters dangerous and radical.

Chase has called the domestic terrorism findings bogus, and consistently supported Shea. He also said he would continue to push for Shea’s plan to divide Washington in two, turning Eastern Washington into its own state called Liberty. Chase, a longtime Ron Paul supporter and a former Libertarian candidate for Congress, has also advocated for a state bank and has consistently criticized Gov. Jay Inslee for “overreacting” to the coronavirus pandemic.

Chase compares himself to Trump and said the race between him and Christian is similar to the 2016 presidential primary. when former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush was among candidates who lost to Trump. Christian is a member of the more establishment Republicans who have leaned too far to the left, Chase said.

He said many more people are moving to the Spokane Valley area, especially the cities, and may be slowly changing the demographics, but those who voted studied the candidates and remain supportive of candidates with truly “conservative values,” such as him, Shea and McCaslin.

Larry Crouse, a Republican who previously represented the district for 19 years, said he wasn’t at all surprised by the results, and said Chase touting his association with Shea likely won him voters.

“In a more liberal district, it wouldn’t (help),” he said. “But our district is a very conservative district, and being associated with Matt Shea would really help.”

Crouse is a Shea supporter who mentored the legislator when he first entered office in 2009. He said he voted for Chase and felt that he and many other voters believed Shea is “misunderstood,” similar to how they felt about Trump when he was impeached.

George Orr, the most recent Democrat to represent the district and a retired firefighter, said he also wasn’t surprised by the results, adding most voters in the greater Spokane Valley area “drank the Kool-Aid” decades ago and have continued to support extremely conservative Republicans, whether they can fulfill their promises or not.

“Elections are made, lost and won on soundbites,” said Orr, who lost re-election in the Republican landslide of 1994. “Take ‘Make America Great Again.’ ”

He said politics in Spokane Valley have frequently turned into candidates like Shea calling his opponents communists, and said he doesn’t see the atmosphere changing until voters begin seriously questioning their representatives and requiring them to back up their claims of providing more freedom or lower taxes.

While Crouse and supporters of the movement around Shea say the results represent the district, others such as Beva Miles, chair of Republicans of Spokane County, say low turnout and polarization led to the outcome, and it’s not a reflection of what the community wants.

“Now you have far-right against far-left. You don’t show anyone that actually represents the majority of people,” she said. “But you want to know why that is? Because the majority of people don’t vote. They leave it to others to make that decision for them and they come in at the last minute.”

Turnout for this primary was approaching 50%, according to statistics released Friday. Early ballot return statistics should be taken with caution said Spokane County Auditor Vicky Dalton, because they can include ballots that are reissued and will not be entirely accurate for a few weeks. That number is well above primary election turnout for the past decade, with 34% of voters turning out in 2016 and 46% of voters turning out in 2018.

Miles said she fears the results from the primary will leave many Republicans in a difficult position: vote for conservative candidates who have allied with the far right, or vote for a Democrat, who also doesn’t reflect their values. She said if far-right candidates continue to win primaries in the district as the demographics in the district shift, it could someday push the seat to a Democrat, like Gurel .

“I don’t agree with him in any way shape or form, or with the Democrat platform,” she said. “But he’s a very reasonable-sounding and lovely man. I believe that the far-right has opened the door to let the independents rule.”

Gurel did not respond to a request for comment on Friday.

Though he lost, Christian said he still was slightly encouraged, and feels like he accomplished what he set out to do when he originally decided to run for office: making sure Shea no longer represents the area.

He said Chase likely will continue many policies Shea advocated for, but won’t be able to draw the same crowd, or lead a movement the way Shea has done.

“I would have loved to be in office, but my focus in running was somebody in the Republican Party needed to stand up,” he said. “I don’t like the entire results, but the main reason I ran is accomplished.”

This story was corrected on August 10, 2020 to include a comment from Vicky Dalton and reflect that voter turnout was approaching 50% as of Friday. and