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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Liberals have fared well in recent elections. Does that mean a Democrat could unseat McMorris Rodgers?

WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden’s approval ratings may be deep underwater, but that hasn’t stopped his fellow Democrats and causes they support from securing a series of electoral victories over the past year and some change.

In Spokane and across the country, liberals fared well in the Nov. 7 elections, often by contrasting themselves with former President Donald Trump and the brash strain of right-wing politics he has cultivated. And even in red states like Kansas, Kentucky and Ohio, voters have repeatedly favored abortion rights since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June 2022.

So far, that trend hasn’t reached Washington’s 5th congressional district, where incumbent Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers won nearly 60% of votes last year. But three Democrats think recent electoral trends give them a shot to unseat the Republican after two decades representing Eastern Washington.

Carmela Conroy, chair of the Spokane County Democrats, and small business owner Ann Marie Danimus, who came up short in the 2022 primary, already have declared their candidacy to challenge McMorris Rodgers. Bernadine “Bernie” Bank, an OB-GYN who left Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center in the fallout from a flawed computer system and continues to work at CHAS Health, is considering jumping into the race on a platform focused on women’s and veterans’ health.

In interviews, all three women said recent election results give them hope that they can end a long pattern of McMorris Rodgers’ opponents getting between 35% and 45% of votes. The closest race came in 2018, when Spokane Mayor-elect Lisa Brown took 45.2%, falling short by more than 30,000 votes.

“As the chair of Spokane County Democrats, I was pleased with what we saw in our results,” Conroy said, pointing to wins by Brown – in a nominally nonpartisan race – and several other candidates endorsed by the party. “I think what Spokane voters and Eastern Washington voters want to see is people who can help provide solutions to problems.”

Pointing to a recent Pew Research Center survey that found 65% of American voters feel exhausted by U.S. politics, with more than a quarter saying they dislike both parties, she said the 2023 elections show voters across the country want “practical, positive problem solvers.”

In Kentucky, where Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell won nearly 58% of votes in 2020, voters re-elected Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear over Republican Daniel Cameron, a McConnell acolyte. A year earlier, Kentucky voters rejected a ballot measure that would have amended the state constitution to deny access to abortion.

Like Beshear, Conroy pitches herself as a “pro-choice” moderate whose experience as a foreign service officer and prosecutor would help her work with Republicans across the aisle. While she named gun safety as a top priority, she declined to take a position when asked if she would support a ban on semiautomatic “assault” rifles, potentially signaling a stance that would put her to the right of most House Democrats.

“My campaign is based on my experience both in the public sector and in the private sector, the importance of finding practical solutions and not being didactic,” she said. “Not taking a positional perspective but looking forward to creative ways to solve problems and get ahead.”

Conroy said she’s counting on the local Democratic establishment coalescing behind her. She said she’s already won the endorsements from all three Democrats who represent Washington’s 3rd Legislative District, as well as Natasha Hill, who finished second to McMorris Rodgers in the 2022 race.

Voter turnout has historically increased in presidential election years, which Conroy said she hopes will benefit Democrats in 2024, although McMorris Rodgers won more than 61% of votes in 2020. She pointed out that most 5th district voters live in Spokane, Pullman and Walla Walla.

“These are blue dots in red seats,” she said of those cities. “So if we can generate excitement and turnout, that could be enough to turn the election for a moderate Democrat.”

Danimus, who won about 10% of votes in the 2022 primary, is taking a different approach. The owner of a small marketing and business development firm said that while she expects Conroy to focus on boosting voter turnout among urban liberals, she intends to build a broader coalition – across all 12 counties in the district – of Democrats, independents and even Republicans who are unhappy with the direction their party has taken.

“I think that in general, around the country, the middle is widening,” she said. “Certainly, since Trump has been a figurehead in politics, everything’s been a little different.”

Danimus called recent election results “an affirmation” that most Americans oppose strict abortion restrictions, while she acknowledged that many of those same voters favor some restrictions on the procedure, according to Gallup polls. If elected, Danimus said, she would champion other policies for which support transcends party lines, such as universal health care, gun safety laws, higher wages, reducing corporate influence in politics and eliminating factory farms.

“Most people will tell you that if you win 53% of Spokane County, that you win the race,” she said. “That may well be true, but that’s not the job. I’m really the only person that is focusing on rural areas.”

With Bank weighing a bid for the seat, that dynamic could change. The physician, who founded the Spokane VA hospital’s gynecology clinic in 2016, said she got involved in politics only after the Supreme Court’s 2022 decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which overturned a half-century-old precedent that guaranteed a right to abortion with some restrictions.

On Nov. 8, a day after the off-year elections, Bank’s exploratory committee issued a news release under the headline “Women’s Health Wins Across America And Will Win in Eastern Washington.”

“Being an obstetrician-gynecologist and pretty much the biggest issue in America right now being women’s health, I feel like I’m not really running against others as much as I’m running for women’s health,” she said. “I just feel like my message right now is a really strong message that’s going to resonate.”

Bank said that while she has never performed an abortion, she believes the procedure needs to remain legal and worries about the “collateral damage” done by the ruling, which allowed states – including Idaho – to restrict abortion, often without exceptions for cases of rape, incest or when a mother’s life is at risk.

As a result, clinics that performed abortions along with other reproductive and women’s health services have closed, while doctors face restrictions on medications and procedures used to treat miscarriages and other problems. Bank said she fears less testing for sexually transmitted infections and certain cancers will lead to preventable health problems in the future.

Even in states like Washington where abortion remains legal, Bank said, those restrictions affect everyone, especially in rural areas where health care resources are limited. She gave the example of people in Colville or Chewelah who now effectively have to compete with people from Sandpoint for limited appointments with local doctors.

“If you already have a burdened health care system, that puts more strain on the system,” she said. “That’s probably the biggest reason Eastern Washington should care about that, because out of everybody in the state, we’re the ones that get hit with it, because we share the border with Idaho.”

Bank said veterans’ health care would be another focus of her campaign if she officially enters the race, a decision she plans to announce early in 2024. She opposes the Oracle Cerner electronic health record system, which the Department of Veterans Affairs has continued using in the Inland Northwest since 2020 despite deciding it isn’t ready to safely launch elsewhere.

McMorris Rodgers has called for that system to be scrapped, but Bank said the Republican should have done more to prevent veterans in the district from being used as unwitting test subjects. She also sees McMorris Rodgers as vulnerable over the 2014 closure of Mann-Grandstaff’s 24-hour emergency room, a move the GOP congresswoman has sought to reverse for a decade without success.

Bank said she intends to visit every part of the district and learn about all the issues that affect its residents, but she called women’s health in the wake of the Dobbs decision “the red-alert emergency issue” that could change the electoral math and see Eastern Washington voters elect a Democrat.

“It’s making women second-class citizens, basically, getting inferior care across the board. It’s not a small group of people being impacted by this,” she said.

“We are getting 20-somethings coming out of the woodwork saying that they want to help, so I think that’s going to be another big piece, if I go forward. I think we’re going to be able to draw out that vote with this campaign like has never been done by the Democrats in this district before.”

Winning a competitive congressional race almost always requires financial backing from outside the district, either from a party’s campaign arm or other groups. Conroy and Bank said they have been in contact with EMILY’s List, a political action committee that works to get Democratic women who support abortion rights elected.

Bank said she has also reached out to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the House Democrats’ campaign arm headed by Rep. Suzan DelBene of Medina, Washington. She said that because DelBene is hard to reach, she has sought the help of Rep. Kim Schrier, a fellow physician and a Democrat whose district stretches from Wenatchee to Seattle’s eastern suburbs.

Conroy said that in addition to EMILY’s List, she has been in contact with VoteVets and National Security Leaders for America, two other PACs that help Democrats with national security backgrounds get elected.

Danimus, meanwhile, said she hopes DelBene and the DCCC will get behind her campaign once she beats out the other Democrats in the primary in August 2024.

“I’m planning on being the shock. I’m planning on being the one that no one expected,” she said. “They don’t expect to be able to flip it, and that’s because they’re running the same game plan.”