After giving Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers perhaps her closest campaign battle in two decades in 2018, the Democratic Party is giving its voters two distinct choices in an August primary that has been rendered unconventional due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Chris Armitage, a 28-year-old U.S. Air Force veteran, has been in the race for more than a year, picking up progressive bonafides across the district while establishing a social media presence that routinely questions the political status quo. On the final day of filing in May, Dave Wilson, a 65-year-old former technology instructor, also joined the race as a Democrat after two previous attempts at the seat as an independent.
Both men acknowledge they’re competing for voters who are fed up with the GOP control of the White House and Congress. It’s the first time Democrats have run two primary candidates against McMorris Rodgers in a decade, and both Armitage and Wilson say they’re inspired by a belief that 2020 will be an election that shakes up the composition of Congress.
Such a change in Eastern Washington would require voters to turn away from McMorris Rodgers, who has handily defeated seven challengers over her 15-year career in Congress. It’s a tenure the congresswoman said she wants to continue to build on, even as she draws a Republican challenger criticizing her and the Republican Party for not embracing President Donald Trump and his policies closely enough.
Armitage, who filed notice of his campaign with the Federal Election Commission more than a year ago, said the arrival of a second Democratic candidate in the race hasn’t changed his approach to campaigning.
“There’s only one person in the race that needs to be fired. This is a long job application, a long hiring process,” Armitage said. “The field’s a little more crowded, but that’s good because it means more choices for the people.”
After holding events throughout the district prior to stay-home orders to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus, Armitage has increased his social media presence and conducted interviews with online personalities. That includes a recent chat with Ryan Knight, a Democratic Socialist activist with an online following approaching 400,000 people.
But Armitage says his campaign is about reaching everyone, including Trump supporters. He said he had a recent constructive conversation with Stephen Major, the Trump-supporting Republican who has filed against McMorris Rodgers in the primary.
Wilson unsuccessfully ran for the Congress seat as an independent in 2014 and 2016 before aligning with the Democratic Party and losing a state House of Representatives seat by fewer than 700 votes in 2018. He said he was spurred to run for Congress this year by the coronavirus outbreak. He hadn’t previously considered another Congressional run, even saying in December he wouldn’t run, but Wilson said he didn’t see a candidate in the field who could provide the necessary leadership to get the country past the pandemic.
“We’re at a turning point. This is serious business,” Wilson said. “I think, more than ever, we need political leadership and political courage. I don’t see it out there.”
In April, Wilson said he started asking around about any Democratic candidates other than Armitage who were interested in filing, including Lisa Brown. The state Commerce Director, who announced on Facebook at the end of March she wasn’t interested in running, lost to McMorris Rodgers by nearly 10 percentage points in 2018 despite nearly matching her in fundraising and running on a long political career in Olympia.
The kind of blue wave that was predicted in 2018 could be coming this year, Wilson said, as more people grow dissatisfied with the administration’s response to the pandemic and calls for criminal justice reform following the death of George Floyd, the Black man who died in police custody in Minneapolis.
“History tells me when you have those conditions, yes, the ruling party is swept out of office,” Wilson said.
Armitage has earned the endorsement of several prominent local progressives, including City Councilwoman Kate Burke, former City Council President Ben Stuckart and the Spokane County Democrats. That endorsement was picked up prior to the resignations of the local party’s leadership, spurred by a complaint about its inclusiveness.
Wilson said he’s offering a “center-left” perspective that he believes resonates with the party, reflected in their decision to make Joe Biden the presumptive nominee for the November presidential election. Still, Wilson said, he believes health care is a right in the United States, that the potential dangers of climate change need to be addressed now and that housing, education and business opportunities should be tailored to assist historically neglected minority groups.
“A simple explanation is that I consider myself a Biden Democrat, and he considers himself a Bernie (Sanders) Democrat,” Wilson said of Armitage. “Who is more likely to win an election in the district? It’s pretty clear to me.”
Biden, the former vice president, carried eight of the 10 counties in Eastern Washington’s Congressional district in the March primary, including Spokane, its most populous county.
Armitage dismissed the notion that his support for Sanders defined him as a candidate. He has embraced many of the ideas supported by the Vermont senator, including the plan to combat climate change known as the Green New Deal and a single-payer national health care system. Armitage also has vowed, if elected, to introduce legislation that would raise the federal minimum wage to $15, require majority nonexecutive ownership of publicly traded companies and limit executive pay tied to the earnings of workers.
Still, Armitage said, his views cannot be summarized by his support for one national candidate .
“I think it’s a complete myth that really is part of the partisan divide in this country,” Armitage said of efforts to reduce candidates to whom they support for president. “My feelings on guns don’t have anything to do with my feelings on health care, or my feelings on taxes. Most Americans don’t completely align with one party or candidate.”
Republicans and independents
After leaving party leadership following the 2018 election, McMorris Rodgers has focused her efforts on committee work. If reelected, the congresswoman said she has more work to do as part of a House Energy subcommittee that oversees technological privacy, broadband internet access and health care policy.
“I’m doing some legislation around price transparency, that I think is really important within our health care system, to make it easier to know what the price is,” McMorris Rodgers said.
McMorris Rodgers said if she returns to Congress, she’ll seek the top Republican spot on that subcommittee. That position, she said, will have a role in making sure China does not outpace the United States in the development of new technology – breakthroughs that are being used in the country to monitor political dissidents and suppress human rights.
“I think it’s really important that America lead in a way that protects human rights,” she said.
McMorris Rodgers said she’s worked in recent years with both President Trump and Democrats to enact legislation. Political opponents in 2018 seized on that relationship with Trump, and Brown frequently criticized McMorris Rodgers when she sided with the president.
Major, the Republican running against McMorris Rodgers, said the party is distancing itself from the president to its own detriment.
“I am a Reagan Republican. I support Trump because he’s our Republican president, and I support Trump for the things he wanted to do,” Major, a 55-year-old Republican precinct committee officer in Spokane Valley, said.
Despite his support for Trump, Major said he disagreed with the tax plan Republicans passed in 2017, changes backed by Trump and championed at the time by McMorris Rodgers, who served in party leadership. He also said he disagreed with the president’s push to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, a popular initiative that delays deportation proceedings for children who were illegally brought to the country. McMorris Rodgers has voted to extend that program, but factions in the GOP have kept it from becoming permanent law, even as the Trump administration has renewed its vows to end it following a defeat in the U.S. Supreme Court.
Major said he also disagreed with providing stimulus money to individuals in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, calling the administration’s response to the outbreak an “overreaction” and citing the mounting national debt.
Brendan O’Regan, a Spokane native who until the past few months had lived overseas completing carpentry work commissioned by the U.S. State Department for embassies, is running as an independent in the race, rounding out the five-person field. He, too, said there were government expenses that needed to be better examined by lawmakers.
“I suffered a lot of anxiety about this $22 trillion that we’re in debt. There’s been a big shift of wealth,” O’Regan, 61, said. “The other candidates, and candidates in general, are bought and paid for.”
McMorris Rodgers said she was looking into requests from businesses to help shield them from some coronavirus-related liabilities and from long-term care facilities in the district for additional federal assistance to help cover the cost of controlling the virus with personal protective equipment.
“Everything that they’re putting into place is pretty significant, and they’re not seeing any support,” McMorris Rodgers said, noting that appropriations from Congress have largely gone to hospitals to cover their costs. “That’s an area where I think we need to be making sure we’re taking care of our most vulnerable.”
Ballots will be mailed for the primary by July 17. They must be returned with a postmark no latter than Aug. 4 if mailed or dropped into an official election drop box by 8 p.m. Aug. 4.
Only McMorris Rodgers and Armitage have filed finance reports with the Federal Election Commission as of Friday. McMorris Rodgers has raised $2.3 million since the election cycle began in January 2019, spending about $1.1 million. Her campaign has $1.3 million on hand, according to the latest FEC filings. Armitage has raised just shy of $60,000, spending $48,000 of it. He has $11,500 on hand.