WASHINGTON – Amid an intensely contentious presidential race, polls show American politics are marked by a near-unprecedented division along partisan lines, but the candidates in Washington’s two most closely contested House races are bucking that trend. In the state’s 3rd and 8th congressional districts, Democrats and Republicans alike are highlighting their willingness to work across party lines.
The two districts are the state’s only congressional constituencies that span the Cascade Mountains. Both are politically diverse “purple” districts where neither party can take winning for granted, and recent projections suggest both races could come down to the wire in this year’s election.
In the 8th district, which stretches from the eastern suburbs of Seattle and Tacoma across the Cascades to Wenatchee and Ellensburg, freshman Democratic Rep. Kim Schrier is facing Republican Jesse Jensen two years after she flipped the previously GOP-held seat.
The 3rd district centers around Democratic-leaning Vancouver and runs along the Columbia River from Goldendale in the east to Willapa Bay on the Pacific coast. There, Democrats are hoping second-time candidate Carolyn Long can repeat Schrier’s success turning a red district blue and defeat five-term incumbent Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler.
“In both the 8th and the 3rd, you have a pretty big mix of cities, suburbs and then little towns and real rural communities,” Washington GOP Chairman Caleb Heimlich said, “and so it takes a representative that’s really willing to listen to the voters and somebody that’s not a hard ideologue. I think they’re looking for people that are trying to get things done, that are trying to work across the aisle to make things happen.”
Schrier, who worked as a pediatrician in Issaquah before she was elected in 2018, said she thinks of her district as a microcosm of Washington.
“We have everything from tech to agriculture to vast public lands. In many ways, it’s kind of like a miniature United States of America,” Schrier said. “Frankly, if more districts were like the 8th district, we’d probably have a much more functional government.”
Recent polls and the August primary suggest both races will be close. Schrier and Jensen emerged from the top-two primary with 43% and 20%, respectively, but the race’s three GOP candidates combined for more than 49% of votes. In the 3rd district, Herrera Beutler took more than 56% of votes to Long’s less-than 40%, but an internal Democratic poll in September showed Long trailing by just two points.
In July, the Cook Political Report – a nonpartisan election forecaster – changed its projection for the 3rd district from “likely” Republican to “lean R,” giving Herrera Beutler only a slight edge in the close race. Another forecaster, Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia, likewise moved the 8th district from “likely Democratic” to “leans Democratic” in September.
Schrier and Herrera Beutler both tout their efforts to get bipartisan legislation passed, including legislation they introduced together in September to extend a pandemic-related change to nutritional benefits for mothers and young children.
Herrera Beutler, a mother of three young children, has made maternal and child health a priority, introducing another bill that passed the House in September to expand protections for pregnant workers. Schrier also supported that legislation.
Despite her medical background, Schrier said she’s worked to get up to speed quickly on other issues that impact her district, which includes a heavily agricultural chunk of Central Washington. She is the only Washington lawmaker on the House Agriculture Committee and has worked with GOP Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Spokane and Dan Newhouse of Sunnyside on bills to help food banks buy crops from farmers during the pandemic and update management of the Yakima River Basin, respectively.
The two congresswomen have agreed on 42% of votes in the current session of Congress, according to a ProPublica vote tracker. The Democratic and GOP whips, in contrast, have voted together just 28% of the time.
Another metric developed by political scientists, the Nominate score, ranks Schrier as more conservative than 58% of House Democrats and Herrera Beutler more liberal than 83% of Republicans in the current Congress.
Despite those relatively moderate records, both of their opponents have sought to pin the incumbents to their parties’ polarizing leaders. Jensen, a Special Forces veteran who credits his military experience for his ability to get things done without regard to party, criticized Schrier for supporting legislation backed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
“I think a lot of folks really appreciate my servant leadership,” Jensen said, “and wanting to represent the people of the 8th Congressional District and not be beholden to a specific party. If you look at Congresswoman Schrier, that was sort of her pitch in 2018 and now she has a 100% voting record with Nancy Pelosi.”
That’s true, but misleading, since the speaker traditionally votes at her discretion, usually only on big-ticket legislation. Pelosi has missed 91% of votes in the current Congress.
Long, a political science professor at Washington State University-Vancouver who lost to Herrera Beutler by five points in 2018, has tried to paint her opponent as a devotee of President Donald Trump.
“I’m running against an opponent who in 2016 chose not to vote for Trump, in 2018 said she was proud not to vote for Trump, and in 2020 she said she’s going to vote for President Trump,” Long said in an interview. “At a time when we have political leaders, military leaders and business leaders fleeing from President Trump, she’s running toward him with open arms.”
Herrera Beutler told The Spokesman-Review she had chosen a write-in candidate in 2016 but planned to vote for Trump this year because she worries about how Democratic candidate Joe Biden would handle the economy.
“When I first came into office, we were in double-digit unemployment in every county in my district,” said Herrera Beutler, who was first elected in 2010. “It was pretty desperate, and that was the longest, slowest recovery I’ve ever been a part of and I don’t want to see that happen again. I think the No. 1 thing we need out of a commander-in-chief is someone – after we’ve gotten through this crisis – who knows how to get the economy moving again.”
Tina Podlodowski, chair of the Washington Democratic Party, said Schrier and Long are best suited to represent the two politically diverse districts because they are more willing to oppose the president.
“They won’t be walking in lockstep with one person, in this case Donald Trump,” Podlodowski said. “They are very willing to break with their party if they don’t think it’s in the best interest of their district, and I think that’s what folks in these districts are looking for.”
After falling in line with Trump’s position on more than 91% of votes in 2017 and 2018, Herrera Beutler has voted with the president’s position less than 70% of the time in the current Congress, according to FiveThirtyEight.
The Republican is also a member of the Problem Solvers Caucus, a bipartisan group of 25 House lawmakers from each party that has garnered attention in recent weeks for its proposal for a $1.5 trillion COVID-19 relief package, a compromise that lands between the demands of Democratic and GOP leaders.
“There are a majority of people in both parties who are working hard to try and get things done,” Herrera Beutler said. “The leadership right now are all playing the national political game, and I hate it. That’s frustrating to me, and that’s one of the reasons why I think it’s empowering to be part of a bipartisan group. We can put some pressure on the leadership.”
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which raises funds for the party’s House candidates, identified Herrera Beutler’s seat as one of its top targets in January. Portland’s CBS affiliate, KOIN, reports the two sides have together spent millions on a preelection ad blitz.
In the 8th district, Jensen has raised just $217,000 to Schrier’s $4.8 million, according to federal filings, but Heimlich said fundraising isn’t everything.
“Money is obviously helpful in politics, but it’s certainly not the final arbiter of who wins,” Heimlich said. “That’s up to the voters. So I’m really confident that if Jesse can get his message out, that he’s going to win that race.”
Jensen, a South Dakota native who worked as a congressional staffer before becoming an Army Ranger, told The Spokesman-Review he “would represent the voters of the 8th congressional district more holistically” than Schrier has.
“When I was in the Army, I always put the needs of the guys and gals underneath my command before my own,” he said. “I was the first one off the helicopter into gunfire, literally, on numerous occasions. That is what we need more of in Congress, folks that are willing to set the petty stuff aside and just get the job done.”
Ballots were sent to all registered Washington voters this week and can be either returned by mail or deposited in one of the state’s official ballot drop boxes. Ballots must be postmarked or left in a drop box by Election Day, Nov. 3.
Orion Donovan-Smith's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.
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