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Can Newhouse hold on to Washington’s most conservative congressional district in test of Republicans’ willingness to forgive Trump impeachment vote?

Oct. 6, 2022 Updated Mon., Oct. 10, 2022 at 11:53 a.m.

WASHINGTON – In his nearly eight years representing central Washington in the House, Dan Newhouse has fended off challengers from across the political spectrum and carved out a niche as a pragmatic lawmaker more interested in policy than bluster.

But this year’s general election presents the Republican from Sunnyside with a new kind of challenge: convincing voters in the state’s reddest district to look past his vote to impeach former President Donald Trump and give him the support they largely withheld in the August primary.

Newhouse and his Democratic opponent, Yakima businessman Doug White, each received roughly 25% of votes in the primary, enough to advance from the top-two contest only because six other GOP candidates who aligned themselves with Trump split the remaining half of votes. What that pro-Trump voting bloc does in the general election will play a big role in determining the outcome.

“It’s the most conservative district in the state of Washington,” Newhouse said in an interview, “so my strategy and my message has been to appeal to those people that have supported me in the past and to remind them that I’m still the same conservative Republican that I’ve always been.”

The Cook Political Report rates Washington’s 4th Congressional District “R+11,” meaning Republican candidates are expected to perform 11 percentage points better than the national average and making it the most heavily GOP-leaning district in the state. Newhouse bested Democratic challengers in 2018 and 2020 by a roughly 2-to-1 margin while his closest races came in 2014 and 2016 against fellow Republican Clint Didier, now a Franklin County commissioner.

But White, a first-time candidate who returned home to Yakima after a 20-year career in international business, thinks right-wing voters’ lingering resentment toward Newhouse makes the incumbent vulnerable. Pitching himself as a solutions-oriented moderate, White said in an interview he hopes to assemble a coalition of reliable Democratic voters, independents and conservatives who want to see Newhouse gone.

“Obviously, it’s an uphill battle,” White said, before citing a recent internal poll his campaign commissioned that makes him optimistic. The survey’s most important finding, he said, is that 40% of Republicans in the district “would vote for a Democrat if that Democrat had the profile that I do.”

“This is a completely different game,” White said. “We’ve literally never seen this in this district before. My message is resonating well with people. They’re fed up with Dan Newhouse and we’re going to see a change.”

A spokesman for the White campaign, John Wyble, declined to share the full poll results but said it shows that Newhouse is “a divisive figure,” even among Republicans, and the race narrows to within the margin of error “after voters hear about Doug White.”

There has been no independent polling this year in the district, which national political analysts consider safely in GOP hands. But White isn’t the only one who thinks the pro-Trump electorate could throw a wrench in Newhouse’s re-election bid.

“I’ve heard a lot of people say that they’re going to vote for White because they cannot get over what Newhouse did, and I’ve heard a lot of people say they’re not going to vote at all,” said Teagan Levine, chair of the Okanogan County GOP.

Levine said when she has told those voters to “take Newhouse’s name out of it” and “look at the bigger picture,” they have usually agreed to vote for the Republican, but she is concerned that not every disaffected voter in the district will get that message before casting their ballots.

If GOP voters can’t get over Newhouse’s impeachment vote, Levine said, she worries they will jeopardize the party’s chances of taking control of the House – and in turn the odds of a Republican winning the presidency in 2024.

None of the Republicans Newhouse bested in the primary have formally endorsed the incumbent although some said they plan to vote for him.

“Newhouse is in trouble, for sure, just talking to people,” said Jerrod Sessler, a former NASCAR driver from Prosser who took 12.3% of votes in the primary, adding that he has encouraged others to vote for Newhouse. “There’s a lot of people voting for Doug White, or they’re going to abstain.”

Jacek Kobiesa, an engineer from Pasco who entered the race late and received just 490 votes, called the race “a huge mess” but said he would vote for Newhouse.

Corey Gibson, a marketing entrepreneur from Selah who won 3.4% of votes, said he has received “so many calls” from conservatives who say they are considering voting for White, “not because they align with him, but because there’s this energy out there of wanting to be heard, wanting to be able to show that people want something different.”

Gibson said he expects Newhouse to win the general election, but said he worries having such a “wildly unpopular” candidate could depress voter turnout in the district and hurt other Republicans, like Senate candidate Tiffany Smiley.

Loren Culp, a former Republic police chief who won Trump’s endorsement and 21.6% of votes in the primary, said he doesn’t plan to vote for either Newhouse or White.

“They’re both Democrats,” Culp said. “One of them just lies to us and tells us he’s a Republican.”

One issue that gives voters a clear choice between the two men is abortion access. While Newhouse touts an “A” rating from the antiabortion Susan B. Anthony List, White talks about the right to terminate a pregnancy as a matter of individual liberty.

The Democrat hopes the Supreme Court’s June ruling that overturned a federal right to abortion will drive abortion-rights supporters to turn out and support him.

With the 50% of primary voters who backed neither Newhouse nor White theoretically up for grabs, there is a potential opening for a write-in candidate to enter the race. State law prevents a losing primary candidate from running a write-in campaign for the same office, but some voters have encouraged Didier, the Franklin County commissioner who ran for the seat in 2014 and 2016, to mount a write-in campaign.

In a text message, Didier confirmed he has had “an incredible amount of people want me to run as a write in,” but said he had no plans to do so.

Mike Massey, chair of the Benton County GOP, said he estimates as many as one-third of conservatives “can’t put the clothes pin over their nose” and vote for Newhouse.

“I’m going to vote for Dan because I have learned in the past that if you don’t support your party, it can really damage things,” Massey said, recalling how he voted in the 1992 presidential race for independent Ross Perot, whose candidacy helped Democrat Bill Clinton defeat Republican George H.W. Bush.

Mike McKee, chair of the Grant County GOP, said he expects Newhouse to prevail but also worries many Republicans will not vote for him.

“I just tell them, ‘Dan may not have been your first, second, third or fourth selection, but he’s won fair and square and now it’s time to fire (House speaker Nancy) Pelosi,’” McKee said, adding with a chuckle, “I can guarantee that Dan Newhouse is not going to vote to impeach another Republican president in the next two years.”

The Washington State Republican Party didn’t endorse a candidate ahead of the August primary, but officially “nominated” him as the party’s candidate after he won the primary, party spokesman Ben Gonzalez said.

For his part, Newhouse is counting on most of the district’s Republican-leaning voters forgiving him for the impeachment vote. In an interview, he alluded to a quote attributed to conservative icon Ronald Reagan, who reportedly said, “The person who agrees with you 80% of the time is a friend and an ally, not a 20% traitor.”

In that spirit, Newhouse said, he hopes his conservative constituents who have supported him in the past will see the race against White as a clear choice between Republican and Democratic platforms.

“I think if they sit down and think about that, even though they’re angry with me for one vote, that’s still better than the other choice that they have in front of them,” he said. “So we’re doing the best that we can to communicate that message.”

When a new Congress is sworn in at the start of 2023, Newhouse may be the only remaining member of the 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump for his role in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol. The only other pro-impeachment Republican who survived the primaries, Rep. David Valadao of California, is in a tight race the Cook Political Report rates as a toss-up.

He will also be among a dwindling number of House Republicans who are interested in working with Democrats on bipartisan legislation as the GOP conference is increasingly dominated by hardline members who say their top priority in the next two years is investigating and even impeaching members of the Biden administration.

Newhouse, a third-generation Yakima Valley farmer, is one of the leading advocates for bipartisan immigration reform to create a reliable, legal supply of U.S. agricultural workers, about half of whom are unauthorized immigrants, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That effort has drawn the ire of anti-immigration hardliners, but Newhouse said he believes 4th District voters want solutions to problems that affect the region.

“The fact that I’m pragmatic, solutions-oriented, willing to work with people on both sides of the aisle in order to find those solutions, I don’t see that as a negative,” he said. “I think that’s what people expect of me.”

As chairman of the Congressional Western Caucus, a group of House Republicans focused on rural issues and limited government, Newhouse said he tries to cultivate an interest in conservative policy – rather than political grandstanding – among fellow GOP lawmakers.

“Certainly you have those that want to just get headlines or become famous on social media and those kinds of things,” he said, “but there actually are a good number of members of Congress that want to get things done for their constituents as well, and my job is to work with those people.”

In addition to farm workforce reform and other needs of the district’s dominant agricultural industry, Newhouse said his top priorities for another term in Congress include supporting low-carbon energy production – he staunchly opposes efforts to breach the four Lower Snake River dams – and making sure the district’s infrastructure, schools and health care system keep up with population growth.

White’s platform focuses on many of the same issues: immigration reform, supporting the district’s agricultural sector, modernizing infrastructure and developing clean energy sources.

White said a clear difference between him and his opponent is in their positions on the Lower Snake River dams, where he doesn’t understand why Newhouse has “such an absolute position” that the dams will never come down.

“I can’t take those dams down, not now anyway,” White said. “What I can do is start expediting our transition off of fossil fuels and increasing our carbon-free energy production and energy storage.”

Starting that work now, he said, along with building rail infrastructure that could one day replace barge transportation on the river, would strengthen the region’s economy while making the prospect of losing the dams’ benefits less devastating in the future.

“To me, that’s a better response than it is to do nothing – ‘the dams aren’t coming down’ – that cannot be the final answer,” White said.

Newhouse said his pitch to voters is that, whatever they think of Trump, his background and experience makes him the right person to represent the district in Congress.

“Being a product of the district, having been born and raised in central Washington, their issues are my issues,” he said. “We share the same challenges, the same perspectives and ideals, and that I’m the best fit to represent them. Focusing on those things that we have in common.”

Meanwhile, White said his campaign’s polling and talking to voters makes him believe he has a shot to stage an unlikely victory in the deep-red district.

“I’m not going to be overly optimistic,” White said. “This is not the time to get cocky. There’s no hubris. We’re playing the numbers and we are working very hard.”

Ballots must be postmarked or deposited in an official drop-box by 8 p.m. on Election Day, Nov. 8.

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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