SELAH, Wash. – On Sunday, Jerrod Sessler stood at the pulpit of the Bible Baptist Church in this Yakima County farming town and explained what may be the craziest race in Washington’s primary election that concludes Tuesday.
“There’s eight candidates running,” he told the congregation. “There’s seven Republicans and one Democrat, and so you’d think, ‘Oh, yay, we’ve got seven good people and one not-so-good person.’ Not true.”
“The truth is there’s only three people in this race out of the eight that I would vote for,” Sessler said, including himself. “And one of them endorsed me last week and told everybody to vote for me because he knows he doesn’t have a shot at winning.”
While he didn’t name the other men in his pitch to the churchgoers, Sessler was referring to two GOP candidates who have reported raising no money but could nevertheless affect the outcome of the race: Army veteran Benancio Garcia III of Sunnyside and engineer Jacek Kobiesa of Pasco.
The only problem: Both Garcia and Kobiesa told The Spokesman-Review they rebuffed Sessler’s requests to endorse him in the final week of a race in which the former NASCAR driver has spent nearly $500,000, most of it his own money, according to Federal Election Commission filings.
When asked to explain his claim on Monday, Sessler denied using the word “endorsed” – he did – and provided a video of Kobiesa telling voters at an event in Ephrata on July 27 that Sessler “might be right” when he claimed to have the best chance to beat incumbent Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Sunnyside.
The day after that event, Kobiesa said, the two men met for lunch at a KFC in Kennewick and Sessler told Kobiesa he had a video crew “standing by” to record an endorsement message, to which Kobiesa responded, “Absolutely not.”
“I told Jerrod, ‘Listen, once you get to a specific level of public service, you can’t make any false statements, because people will take you apart,’ ” Kobiesa said Monday, after Sessler sent The Spokesman-Review what he said was a joint statement from the two men agreeing that Sessler “has the best potential” to replace Newhouse. Kobiesa said he didn’t agree with the statement.
Caleb Heimlich, chairman of the Washington State Republican Party, said Sessler “shouldn’t be spreading outright lies.”
“This is unfortunately the point in the campaign season, with 36 hours to go, where candidates often get desperate,” said Heimlich, whose organization has not endorsed a candidate in the primary. “Obviously, I think it’s a huge mistake and doesn’t work with the voters to say things that are untrue, especially those that can be verified.”
Sessler’s claim was just the latest episode in a drama-packed primary race that began when Newhouse, a four-term lawmaker with deep ties to the district’s dominant agricultural industry, was one of 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach then-President Donald Trump for inciting the attack on the U.S. Capitol in January 2021.
The backlash was swift, with the GOP chairmen from six of the district’s eight counties calling on Newhouse to resign in January 2021 for showing “complete disregard to the citizens who elected you.” Newhouse refused to step down, saying he had made the decision “based on my oath to support and defend the Constitution.”
That same month, state Rep. Brad Klippert of Kennewick, who grew up on a farm down the road from Newhouse, became the first Republican to announce a run against his high school classmate. Sessler joined the race in April 2021 along with Loren Culp, the former Republic police chief who came up short in a run for governor in 2020.
Corey Gibson, a marketing entrepreneur from Selah, announced his candidacy in September 2021. Yakima businessman Doug White, the only Democrat in the race, declared his candidacy in October 2021. Garcia also threw his hat in the ring days later, but he said a fire at his house soon derailed his campaign. Kobiesa was the last man to enter the race, filing as a candidate just before the state’s May 20 deadline.
At the church in Selah, Rev. Don Cline told the congregation he wouldn’t tell them how to vote but said he had already voted for Sessler – drawing applause from the pews – then asked the church’s deacons and trustees to come to the front and pray for God to bless Sessler and his family.
After Sessler spoke, a member of the congregation asked how he planned to resist the influence of lobbyists and political action committees. Sessler replied that he believes lawmakers aren’t corrupted after they get to Congress but rather too many of them don’t have the character to stave off corruption in the first place.
He admires members of the House Freedom Caucus, Sessler said, including Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida – who “loves God” – and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, who “stands for God and stands for us.”
That message resonated with members of the congregation, several of whom said after the service they had already voted for Sessler.
“He believes in Christ, he believes in God, and I like his ideas about how to do things,” said Jess Hale of Selah, 62. “Our country really needs help and I think he’s a guy that can actually help us.”
Mary Fuller of Selah, 68, said she had voted for Newhouse in the past and wasn’t upset about his vote to impeach Trump, but she prefers to vote for candidates who haven’t been in office for a long time.
“I think if they haven’t done what they said by now, they’re not going to do it, and I think it’s important to get new people in there,” she said, adding that Sessler’s belief in God and opposition to abortion was important to her.
Sessler told the congregation he had raised more money than any other candidate challenging Newhouse and had spent about $800,000. According to the latest FEC filings, he had raised about $508,000 and spent roughly $483,000. About $388,000 of that money has come in the form of personal loans and contributions Sessler has made to his own campaign.
He has spent that money building name recognition, largely by putting signs up across the vast district that spans Central Washington from Canada to Oregon. In the redistricting process based on 2020 census data, the district added Klickitat County and lost most of Adams and Franklin counties.
With no public polling on the race, it is unclear how successful that effort has been. On Sunday, Sessler provided The Spokesman-Review with what he said were survey results showing him leading the field of seven GOP candidates with 20% of voters supporting him, 16% for Newhouse, 15% for Culp and 11% for Klippert.
But the man Sessler said conducted that survey, New York-based consultant John Tsanas, said he provided those numbers to Sessler for free as part of a get-out-the-vote effort organized by an informal network that supports GOP candidates across the country. They were based on phone calls made by volunteers to a list of numbers provided by Sessler, Tsanas said, “not a scientific poll.”
Meanwhile on Sunday, White was doing his own phone-banking at the Yakima County Democrats’ headquarters in a final push to get out the vote. As the only Democrat running against seven Republicans who have spent the past year attacking each other, he hasn’t faced the same name-recognition challenge as the seven men with an “R” next to their names on the ballot, but he faces an uphill battle in a district no Democrat has won since now-Gov. Jay Inslee’s won a single term in 1992.
Camille Moreau, who lives outside Loomis in Okanogan County, said she voted for White without knowing much about him because he was the only Democrat on the ballot.
“I didn’t pay a whole lot of attention until the last presidential cycle, which was really offensive to me, so I guess now I consider myself a Democrat,” said Moreau, 76. “I’d really like to see the Democrats not lose the House or the Senate, so I’m going to do my part.”
White could take advantage of a divided right-wing vote to squeeze through the top-two primary with even a relatively small percentage of the vote, but on Sunday he said he thinks he can get a lot more than just the one-third of voters who have gone for Democrats in past general elections. While most voters in the district are conservative, he said, they aren’t necessarily Republicans.
Brenna Suhm of Yakima said she has identified as an independent who voted for Newhouse in the past, but she voted for White and volunteered for his campaign because she was alarmed by the direction of the GOP under Trump and thinks it’s important for Democrats to field serious candidates even in areas where Republicans are dominant.
“It just does not seem good for democracy or good for the future of our political system if we don’t even have options during our campaigns,” said Suhm, 42. “No wonder a lot of people don’t want to vote or they get disillusioned.”
Suhm said the GOP has grown more extreme and she was upset that Newhouse, along with nearly all House Republicans, voted against a bill in June that would codify a right to access contraception, which Republicans argued was too broad.
“I just don’t have any faith right now in Republicans being moderate and having common sense,” she said. “I just feel like they’re all in line, they’re all radical and they’re taking our country in the wrong direction.”
Richard Reuther, chairman of the Benton County Democratic Party, said White has a better chance of winning in the 4th district than any Democrat has had in years. If White gets through the primary, Reuther said, any of his potential GOP opponents in November’s general election would have weaknesses.
“If it’s Newhouse, you still have that part of the Republican base that’s so angry at him for voting to impeach Trump that they may not vote,” he said. “If it’s Sessler or Culp, they may be cutting out a whole lot of standard, middle-of-the-road Republicans.”
Culp got a boost when he received Trump’s endorsement in February, while Sessler has garnered endorsements from Trump allies including lobbyist Roger Stone and retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn. Gibson has founded a network of Trump-aligned, “America First” candidates running for office across the country.
When he talks to voters who are open to supporting him, White said, the most common barrier he has to overcome is voters supporting Newhouse because they think the relatively moderate Republican is the only viable alternative to the other GOP candidates.
“Right now, people are so afraid of six of the Republican candidates, because they’re so far right,” White said. “But I’ve been able to give some people much greater confidence in voting for me, that this is the right decision.”
White said he doesn’t believe Newhouse is meaningfully different from hardline Republicans like Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas or Greene, the Georgia congresswoman who was stripped of her committee assignments in February 2021 for past statements promoting violence and conspiracy theories.
“He’s going to vote exactly the same as them,” White said, but in reality Newhouse is a moderate Republican by several metrics.
He has voted with President Joe Biden’s position roughly 25% of the time in the current Congress, according to the political data website FiveThirtyEight, about twice as frequently as his fellow GOP Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Spokane. He has broken with the majority in his party to lead bipartisan immigration reform efforts, and in July was among a quarter of House Republicans who voted to guarantee a right to same-sex marriage.
Speaking to about two dozen supporters in a restaurant in Moxee on Friday, Culp made a similar argument for ousting Newhouse from the opposite side of the political spectrum.
“He votes along with Nancy Pelosi and AOC about 40% to 50% of the time,” Culp said, referring to the House speaker and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, a prominent progressive Democrat. He did not explain where that figure came from, but it may include votes on uncontroversial bills to do things like naming post offices, which virtually all lawmakers vote for.
Culp jeered at Newhouse’s vote to approve funding for states that adopt “red flag” laws to temporarily remove guns from people determined by a judge to pose a threat to themselves or others, which Culp said violates the 2nd Amendment. He also pointed to Newhouse’s votes to approve aid to Ukraine to defend against Russia’s invasion and to pass an annual bill to fund the federal government that includes funding for Planned Parenthood clinics.
“The majority of people in his district do not want unborn babies shredded and torn to pieces,” Culp said. “He’s voted for that, to fund that.”
In reality, a provision in the annual spending bill prohibits Planned Parenthood – which provides a wide range of health care services – from using federal funds for abortion. Newhouse is also a cosponsor of a bill that would defund Planned Parenthood.
As of Monday night, fewer than 23% of statewide ballots had been returned. Washington’s vote-by-mail system means a tight race may not be called until after primary day, since ballots will be counted as long as they are postmarked or deposited in official drop boxes by Tuesday.
The 4th district’s population is 40% Hispanic, according to U.S. Census Bureau data, and Garcia – who said he has Latino, Native American and Black heritage – has presented himself as the candidate who can best represent all communities in the district. Garcia’s backers, many of whom know him personally, point to his character as a major reason they support him.
“I know politics changes everybody, but as I see him, he seems to be very honest,” said Gloria Gill, who runs a trucking company in Sunnyside. “He wants to help the Latino community and he’s just a really good guy.”
Juan Aguilar of Yakima, 75, grew up in Sunnyside and worked for Newhouse’s father, longtime Republican state lawmaker Irv Newhouse. Aguilar said Dan Newhouse is a “Trump loyalist who votes straight party-line,” while he sees Garcia as less partisan despite his support for Trump.
“Ben says ‘I’m a Republican and I believe that we all should be represented,’” Aguilar said. “He says, ‘I can represent everybody, but I don’t want to leave the Latino community behind, because they are the blood and guts of this county.’ We feed Yakima County. We feed Washington state. We feed the nation. We feed the world.”
After joining the Washington National Guard as a college student, Garcia said, he served in combat in Iraq until he was injured in an accident in 2008. After returning home to Sunnyside, he worked for a decade as a loan underwriter for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
On Sunday, he drove around a Walmart parking lot in Yakima to get his message out, courtesy of a high-powered speaker chained to the top of his Jeep Patriot, connected to a microphone he held as he repeated a straightforward pitch to anyone who would listen: “Vote Benancio Garcia for U.S. Congress. Combat veteran. Ten years’ federal experience as an underwriter and a city treasurer.”
On Friday, Garcia accused the Washington State Republican Party of “suppressing the Latino vote” by reneging on an arrangement he said the state GOP made with the Latino StrikeForce, a Texas-based group Garcia said endorsed him, to use an app to call voters and leave voicemails promoting his candidacy.
Heimlich, the state GOP chairman, said Garcia misunderstood how the service works. While volunteers for each candidate’s campaign can call voters using the app – which the party pays for – if a voter doesn’t answer the phone the volunteer can only leave a generic voicemail from the Washington State Republican Party, which has not endorsed a candidate in the race.
A spokesman for the Latino StrikeForce did not respond to questions.
Newhouse has kept a relatively low profile during the primary campaign, refraining from personally attacking his opponents while outside political action committees have spent more than $1.5 million to support him and attack Culp.
At a park in Richland on Monday evening, Newhouse led a rally of about 100 people opposed to efforts to breach the Lower Snake River dams. He has made support for the dams one of his hallmark issues as chairman of the Congressional Western Caucus, a group of House Republicans who represent rural areas and advocate for limited government involvement in natural resource use.
“We should always be careful about elected public officials making promises,” Newhouse said, drawing laughs from the crowd. “But I promise you this: As long as I’m in Congress, I will never allow these dams to be breached.”
In an interview after the rally, Newhouse said he was optimistic about the race and had been “doing an awful lot of work over the past several months getting our message out and meeting with people.”
If he gets through the primary, Newhouse said, it would mean people in the district are happy with the job he’s done representing them for nearly eight years.
“They may not agree with every single vote, and that’s OK,” he said, “but overall I have the best interests of the people of Central Washington at heart and they understand that and they want to see me continue working.”
With opponents on both his left and right, Newhouse’s hopes of getting through the primary rely on independent and moderate voters like Arnie Korynta of Selah. Korynta, 78, said he grew up as a Democrat but doesn’t like the job Biden has done as president and he voted for Newhouse.
“I debated because of what he did on the impeachment vote,” Korynta said. “But looking at everything else, I think that he’s helped agriculture and protection of the dams. So I think I can probably forgive him for that.”
Yet not everyone at the rally in Richland was a Newhouse supporter. Paul Frenzel of Pasco said he hadn’t voted yet, but with 24 hours left before ballot drop boxes close, he planned to vote for Klippert. The 56-year-old fisherman summed up his sentiment by saying, “Save our dams. Get rid of Dan.”
Klippert, who works as a Benton County Sheriff’s deputy on top of his duties as a state lawmaker, has lagged behind the other candidates in fundraising and has not campaigned widely outside the Tri-Cities. After receiving the endorsements of local GOP chapters in Benton and Franklin counties, Klippert is banking on strong support from people who know him.
Janae Michel of Kennewick held a sign for Newhouse that said, “We did not vote for you, but we still want our dams.”
Asked who she had voted for, Michel, 56, turned to her companion for help.
“Who did we vote for instead of Newhouse?” she asked. “I got all these names, because we talked about a lot of them. Sessler or Klippert? I think it was Sessler.”
After she was reminded she had in fact voted for Culp, Michel said she had met him and was frustrated by the attacks on him and negativity in the race. Of Newhouse, she said, “I am very disappointed with him, but I am glad he is wanting to fight for our dams.”
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe now to get breaking news alerts in your email inbox
Get breaking news delivered to your inbox as it happens.