CATHLAMET, Wash. – There are little nooks in Washington that are easy to overlook to those who live outside of them.
Wahkiakum County’s 287 square miles of dense forests along the Columbia River about 67 miles downstream from Vancouver provide a refreshing feeling of solitude, far from the population centers of the 3rd Congressional District. The 4,500 people who live here enjoy small-town gatherings ranging from flea markets to seasonal carnivals.
Once a center for logging and fishing industries, Wahkiakum County is struggling to survive as its population ages and infrastructure becomes worn. One of the county’s cities, Cathlamet, requires “millions and millions of dollars” of work that the municipality can’t afford, said Monica Budd, Cathlamet Chamber of Commerce executive director.
Local leaders have been persistent in applying for grants and programs to address their community’s needs, Budd said, yet they need advocates to rally behind them on a state and federal level.
“People have so many questions and concerns and we want to be heard,” she said.
To shift away from this, 3rd District candidates Marie Gluesenkamp Perez, D-Skamania, and Joe Kent, R-Yacolt, have dedicated their campaign messaging to tell rural voters they matter.
The reception has been mixed.
Some rural Republicans have misgivings about Kent, citing what they consider his extreme politics, but they also say supporting a Democrat is unacceptable. Democrats fear a spiral into regressive politics if Perez doesn’t secure the seat.
Others don’t even know who is vying to replace Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground, making campaign promises even less important than party affiliation.
The result is a sense of disconnection with the political centers of the district and a desire to say that, while their votes are few, they still matter.
Nansen Malin, Pacific County Republican chair, said that when the pandemic began to unravel the social fabric, political divisions widened and animosity grew among rural Republicans. Their frustrations folded inward in a mesh of infighting. She said populism – or Trumpism – took a hold of the party, misconstruing traditional conservatism, and replaced it with what Malin called “misinformation, lies and drama.”
Kent, who is endorsed by Donald Trump, has gained popularity for his statements on crime, abortion, gun ownership, immigration and on dismantling what he calls the “establishment.” His continued claim that the 2020 presidential election was illegitimate due to election fraud, an exhaustively disproven theory, has also rallied a devoted MAGA base.
At the northern end of the 3rd District, Ruth Peterson, Lewis County Republican Party committeewoman, said she is not supportive of Democratic policies. These initiatives, ranging from environmental regulations to pandemic shutdowns, have thwarted rural communities’ well-being, and Republican voters are seeking to shift Democrats’ bearing on a federal level, she said.
“We’ve got a race between a Republican and a Democrat, and a lot of people are more focused on being able to take the majority (in Congress),” she said.
But Kent’s involvement with nationalist organizations and figures, as well as divisive rhetoric, has raised eyebrows among his party.
As a result, there are Republicans torn between casting their vote for their preferred candidate or Kent – some would like to write in another Republican’s name before filling the box by Kent’s.
“A lot of people just can’t get behind their candidate, and they’re flummoxed,” she said. “They don’t know what to do. I’m not sure how this is going to turn out.”
Jerry Cooper, Cowlitz County Republican Party vice chair, denied that there is political infighting among Republicans in his county, but he admitted to “discontent” that began during Herrera Beutler’s time in office. Although the incumbent was active in getting government spending for southwest Washington, he said constituents wanted her to stand up for what he considers American principles.
Cowlitz Republicans became animated after Herrera Beutler voted to impeach then-President Trump. While they searched for an ideal candidate in the large pool of political newcomers and eventually landed on Kent, Cooper said, moderates remained unsure of how to cast their vote due to his extreme politics.
“I don’t think there’s a lot of active infighting,” Cooper said. “I think there’s some passive discontent that may lead some voters to look for other alternatives, such as Marie.”
Rural Democrats break the mold
Rural Democrats don’t fit the stereotypes of their state and national party, said Amber Rosewood, chair of the 19th Legislative District Democratic Committee, which encompasses Lewis, Cowlitz, Wahkiakum, Pacific, Grays Harbor and Thurston counties.
Generalizations paint Democrats as being die-hard environmentalists and staunchly anti-gun, but this deviates from reality in rural areas, she said. Many rural Democrats rely on resource industries, such as timber and fishing, which go against the grain of progressive policies that impose regulations in these fields. Some enjoy hunting, and others own a personal firearm for protection. A lot don’t like property taxes.
“You have to tow a different line and be open to more viewpoints, which makes us more understanding of these issues,” Rosewood said. “We are not at odds with the state party, but we are in a unique position because we don’t always think the same way.”
National hot-button issues do grasp at rural voters’ attention, yet they don’t take precedence above local concerns, such as bringing in broadband infrastructure, repairing warped roads or having a doctor in town, said Ron Wright, Wahkiakum Democratic Party chair.
“We’re so doggone small. It’s hard for anybody to pay attention to us,” Wright said. “We’ll just set (party affiliation) aside and work for what’s good for the county.”
In smaller communities, there is a wide variety of opinions at the same table, Rosewood said, and it’s a waste of time to delve into fine details that result in bickering. Perez, she continued, recognizes the value in finding middle ground, both among Democrats and Republicans.
Perez, an auto shop owner, often touts her rural residency and experience of owning a small business in her campaign messaging. Frequently, she publicly opposes Kent’s positioning on local and national issues, labeling them as extremist and not aligned with the 3rd District’s needs.
Democrats in rural areas are focused on electing people that can work with moderates on both sides of the aisle to get things done – something they don’t see in Perez’s opponent, Rosewood said.
“It seems like we’ve just taken a monstrously huge step backward, which he is in support of,” said Skamania Democrat Honna Sheffield, referencing the overturn of Roe v. Wade and Kent’s anti-abortion stance.
“We see that with candidates like Joe Kent, that is so far extreme to where anything we could have imagined – even five years ago,” Rosewood said. “We are used to not getting a response from Jaime Herrera Beutler. But this is so far right and so terrifying.”
Cathlamet has a connection to influence in politics: as it was the birthplace of Julia Butler Hansen, the first Democratic woman elected to Congress from Washington. Before being elected to Congress in 1960, Hansen represented Cowlitz and Wahkiakum counties in the Legislature for 11 terms, where she was tenacious in representing rural voices.
The small city still hosts celebrations paying homage to the former representative, who was also referred to as the “Duchess of Cathlamet,” Budd said. Hansen led the Legislature’s House, Roads and Bridges Committee and advocated for needed infrastructure in the county, which led to the establishment of the Astoria-Megler Bridge.
Although Hansen retired from politics in 1974, her influence is still felt in Cathlamet. Now, the community is looking for a leader who can do the same for the small township.
“Our population is just so small,” Budd said. “Sometimes people forget we’re here, but we still matter.”
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