The floodgates have been thrown open following Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers’ surprise announcement that she will not run for re-election this year, with rampant speculation about who might enter the race from the Republican side and whether any Democrat could flip a seat that has eluded the party for three decades.
Three Democrats entered the race months ago, including Bernadine Bank, Carmela Conroy and Ann Marie Danimus.
A spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, the House GOP’s campaign arm, said the committee considers the 5th district a safe Republican seat.
“Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers has faithfully served Washington families and the American people in Congress since 2005, and we thank her for her years of dedicated service and leadership,” NRCC spokesman Ben Petersen said. “Republicans look forward to keeping this seat red and electing a GOP Representative who will continue fighting for eastern Washington’s priorities.”
Mary Jo Bolt, chair of the Spokane County GOP, agrees.
“I don’t think we can just stick our head in the mud, but I do feel confident that we’ll be able to retain this seat,” she said in a Thursday interview. “Having an open seat now, we’ve got a lot of work to do, but we’re prepared.”
The Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan election analysis outfit, rates the district “R+8,” meaning that in the 2016 and 2020 elections combined, the district performed eight percentage points more Republican than the nation as a whole. Erin Covey, the Cook Political Report’s House analyst, said that makes for “a steep climb for any Democrat.”
“That being said, because it is open, that makes it a little easier to flip, hypothetically,” Covey said, adding that a “dream recruit” for Democrats may have a chance of beating a hardline Republican.
Cornell Clayton, director of the Thomas S. Foley Institute of Public Policy and Public Service at Washington State University, agrees that the Democrats’ best shot in November comes down to how the primaries shake out this summer.
“The 5th is not a swing district by any means,” Clayton said. “It’s pretty conservative, in Republican control since 1995 now, and the incumbents have won quite handily against some good challengers, like Lisa Brown.”
“But if in the primaries you get an extreme member of the Republican Party nominated, and in the Democratic side you get a more moderate, establishment figure, then I think the Democrats have a realistic possibility to pick up this seat,” he added.
Even then, Clayton believes that the results will depend heavily on how voters feel about the rest of the ballot this year, including a likely rematch between incumbent President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump.
Kamau Chege, executive director of the progressive Washington Community Alliance, an organization with local members including the Hispanic Business Professional Association and Spokane Community Against Racism, agrees that other issues on the ballot could heavily influence the congressional election.
“If this is a year with depressed progressive turnout and higher turnout in Trump’s base, you can imagine an even more conservative person being elected from the 5th Congressional District,” Chege said. “But because it’s such an odd election, where the leading Republican candidate is indicted on multiple criminal charges, you could also see how Republican turnout craters.”
Chege disagrees, however, that Democrats’ best chance is with a centrist candidate.
“I think the ability for progressive challengers in Spokane to run as a slate on common sense progressive solutions and to have a widespread ground game was the difference between 2023 and 2022,” Chege said, comparing local progressive victories last year to Natasha Hill’s loss to McMorris Rodgers the year prior.
Many local politicians are considering a run for the seat. Here is what some of them had to say on their possible runs:
Spokane County Treasurer Michael Baumgartner gained prominence when he defeated Chris Marr for a state Senate seat that at the time was the most expensive campaign in legislative history. After serving two terms, he opted to run for treasurer instead. Baumgartner has experience running for bigger offices. He lost a race for U.S. Senate against Maria Cantwell in 2012.
He confirmed in a post on X on Friday that he is considering a run and said he’d been approached by potential political donors.
“Yes with the unexpected news we are taking a look and considering the practicalities of a young family,” his post said. “We’ll let you know when we do.”
Conservative Spokane City Councilman Jonathan Bingle was floated as a possible candidate for Spokane City Council president last year and is rumored to be considering a run for McMorris Rodgers’ seat. On Thursday, he said he hadn’t had time to think about it yet.
Fellow conservative Spokane City Councilman Michael Cathcart, who won re-election last year, wrote in a Friday text that he had “some modest encouragement” to run, but was “heartened at the names I’ve heard so far that I can get behind,” like Baumgartner or Former state Sen. Brian Dansel. Still, he didn’t rule out the possibility.
Spokane has a history of punishing incumbent mayors, rarely electing them to a second term. Condon, a conservative who focused on stabilizing the city’s finances, was able to break that curse and serve a full eight years, and many speculate he may try his hand at winning federal office. He previously served on McMorris Rodgers’ staff.
He did not respond to requests for comment.
Dansel is perhaps the first Republican to publicly announce he’s gearing up for a potential run for the seat. He’s already formed an exploratory committee, which allows him to begin raising money, hiring staff and testing the waters.
“I think that my approach would be different than a lot of folks,” Dansel said in a brief Friday interview. “I’m a big believer in standing up for the individuals and their rights, not being an advocate to them, but being an advocate for them. I think this area needs a cheerleader, someone who can bring people together.”
Dansel, who serves as a Ferry County commissioner, has worn a lot of hats during his time in politics, including as an appointed advisor to the National Economic Council and the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the Trump administration, as state executive director of the Farm Service Agency and the regional director of the Pacific Northwest region of the USDA.
Franklin County Commissioner Clint Didier, a former NFL tight end, said he would prefer to run for the 4th Congressional District, which is currently represented by fellow Republican Dan Newhouse. Didier unsuccessfully ran for Senate in 2010, for Washington Commissioner of Public Lands in 2012, and to represent the 4th Congressional District in 2014 and 2016.
Didier said he may consider running for the 5th Congressional District, which now includes his ranch after the district borders were changed after the 2020 Census. He added that he hadn’t given it much thought since news of McMorris Rodgers’ retirement broke Thursday.
“To be honest with you, I’m barely in the 5th congressional now, but I’ve lived in the 4th congressional most my life,” Didier said. “I’d much rather take Dan Newhouse out of his seat.”
State Rep. Mary Dye, R-Pomeroy, declined to comment when asked if she would run for Congress Friday, saying she wasn’t ready to answer the question.
“I have too much on my plate,” she said. “I think it’s premature to talk about it. I’m focused on making policy for the state.”
Dye, who serves as the ranking member on the House Environment and Energy Committee, said she appreciates the legacy McMorris Rodgers will leave behind.
“She has been such a big part of all of our lives,” Dye said. “I understand the heavy burden she has borne for our district for such a long time. She’s an amazing Congresswoman and she’ll be sorely missed for sure.”
Former Republican Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich was one of a few prominent politicians who announced his interest in running for Congress when many thought McMorris Rodgers would be appointed secretary of the interior by Trump.
He left office at the end of December 2022, moving to his home state of Wyoming where he currently resides. He wrote in a Thursday text that whether he plans to run for Congress “seems to be a question that many want the answer to based on the way my phone is blowing up.”
However, he added that it was too early to say either way. He noted that the U.S. Constitution stated he would have to move back to Washington in order to file for the office.
He is the second-longest serving sheriff in the county’s history and earned a reputation for calling out Democrats and sometimes members of his own party, such as former state Rep. Matt Shea.
Spokane County Board of Commissioners Chair Mary Kuney, a Republican who’s served on the commission since her appointment in 2017, said in a written statement that she has not yet made a decision on whether she will run.
“I haven’t made any decisions, but look forward to helping Republicans up and down the ballot this year,” Kuney said.
In the buzz of Thursday’s news, Rep. Jacquelin Maycumber, R-Republic, was a name tossed around political circles speculating about who might run to replace McMorris Rodgers.
Maycumber, the House Republican Floor Leader, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
She was elected to the Legislature in 2017 and represents the 7th Legislative District in northeastern Washington.
Former Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl has never publicly floated a potential run for elected office, but his name has been mentioned more than once by local politicos.
Meidl announced he would resign in November, shortly after Nadine Woodward lost her re-election bid for Spokane mayor. Meidl had been with the Spokane Police Department since 1994 and served in many roles, including working as a detective, SWAT Team member, internal affairs lieutenant, liaison to the office of the police ombudsman and on the special investigations unit, internal affairs lieutenant and liaison to the office of the police ombudsman.
In early 2023, Meidl faced demands from local activists to resign over what they called inappropriate communication with local business leaders that critics said amounted to a shadow effort to undermine police reforms and hurt liberal political opponents.
He did not respond to a request for comment.
Newly elected Spokane Valley City Councilman Al Merkel said he may be interested in running for the position, but added that he feels he has more work to do at the city level. Merkel said Valley residents were served well by McMorris Rodgers and that he is uncertain of who may step up to take her place at a time when the GOP is fractured.
“I don’t know who’s going to be able to coalesce the party right now,” Merkel said. “There’s no Cathy McMorris Rodgers in the wings waiting.”
Eight years ago, former state Rep. Kevin Parker was among the local politicians who announced he’d consider a bid for the 5th Congressional District if McMorris Rodgers stepped away for a position in Trump’s cabinet.
Now, the businessman who employs around 300 people and is working to build his 13th Dutch Bros location, is mulling a similar decision.
“It was not on my radar 48 hours ago, but it’s been really special getting so many texts and calls from people who want me to run,” Parker said. “I’m not saying no, not saying yes.”
Shea, a controversial conservative with extremist religious views, could not be reached for comment. Shea, from Spokane Valley, has lost prominence in the region since leaving the Legislature in 2020 but still holds influence. He currently serves as senior pastor to his own Spokane congregation, On Fire Ministries.
Shea resurfaced in headlines last year after appearing on stage at a Christian nationalist event with local politicos, including Woodward and Spokane Valley City Councilwoman Jessica Yeager.
Shea led a group of lawmakers to the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2016, where Ammon Bundy and other armed protesters were involved in a standoff with federal officials. The GOP caucus expelled the Spokane Valley lawmaker from the caucus as a result.
In her final interview in office with The Spokesman-Review after losing re-election in November to Brown, Woodward said she would “never say never,” but had no short-term plans to return to politics. Attempts to reach her Friday were unsuccessful.
“I really hope that this experience has opened a door to other opportunities,” she said in December. “I’m not sure what that is, but I’m looking forward to seeing what that might be. I do like policy work, I want to continue to have an impact on the city I love and I’m hoping some doors will open that will allow me to do that.”
Prominent Republicans who said flatly that they will not run for the seat this year include the following: Spokane County Commissioners Al French and Josh Kerns, state Sen. Jeff Holy, former state Rep. Bob McCaslin and Liberty Lake City Councilman Chris Cargill.
Bernadine “Bernie” Bank
Bank, an OBGYN, said donors and political action committees started reaching out immediately after the news broke on Thursday.
“The reason Cathy McMorris Rodgers has been re-elected for 20 years is the people in the district like Cathy McMorris Rogers,” said Bank’s campaign manager, Bajun Mavalwalla. “So if the first thing you come in and do is attack her personally, you’re already on a losing track. That’s not the way to do strategic messaging. So our campaign doesn’t have to pivot. … Obviously, we don’t need to talk about Rodgers anymore, but that’s actually to our advantage.”
She is the closest to ever come to defeating McMorris Rodgers, earning over 45% of the vote in 2018, which she credits in part to her name recognition and deep political experience, and in part to a small army of volunteers.
She was also among the many who said they may run in 2016 when it last seemed like McMorris Rodgers might be vacating the seat. Having newly won election to lead the city of Spokane, however, Brown said she’s focused on the job in front of her.
“I am focused on the city and how I can serve the people of Spokane,” Brown said. “I care a lot about the region and Eastern Washington, and the work that we do here benefits not just the citizens of Spokane but the whole region.”
“But that’s what I’m focused on,” she added. “That’s what I ran on, and that’s what I committed to.”
Conroy, who led the Spokane County Democratic Party until she entered the race last year, said McMorris Rodgers’ decision not to run again dramatically reshaped the electoral landscape.
“You could just use an emoji of an exploding head, because it’s such a game changer,” Conroy said. “I knew it was going to be a really tough fight and the longest of long shots, because Cathy has been of service to this district for so long.”
Ann Marie Danimus
Danimus, a marketing and small business development firm owner, said she was looking forward to a change of the guard. Danimus ran for the seat in 2022, but lost in the primary.
“I’m kind of excited at the opportunity to not have to dig through the Cathy McMorris Rodgers trash can and to actually focus on the positive things that I want to do for the district,” she said. “I mean, it could be argued that I could have done that anyway, but I do think that when you’re running against an incumbent, it’s important to talk about their track record.”
Natasha Hill ran unsuccessfully as a Democrat against McMorris Rodgers in 2022, losing in the general election by nearly 20 points. The local attorney and the interim editor of The Black Lens newspaper said she was not thinking about running “at this time,” but noted that the longtime congresswoman’s retirement “has definitely opened up opportunities that I hadn’t expected to be on the horizon.”
When asked whether he intends to run for Congress, Rep. Marcus Riccelli, D-Spokane, declined to comment.
“I’m staying focused on my job as chair of the House Health Care & Wellness Committee,” he said, “passing good policies to help the people and the state. That’s what I got sent to Olympia to do.”
Riccelli was elected to the Legislature in 2012. From 2016 to 2022, he served as House Majority Whip.
Former City Council President Ben Stuckart hasn’t run for office since losing the 2019 Spokane mayor’s race to Woodward. In a Friday text, he wrote that he would “maybe” consider a bid for Congress.
“Too early to say,” he added.
In 2016, when McMorris Rodgers appeared to be imminently up for appointment to lead the Department of the Interior under the Trump administration, Stuckart was the first prominent local politician to announce he would run for her seat if she vacated it.
Prominent Democrats who said flatly that they will not run for the seat this year include the following: State Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig and Spokane City Council President Betsy Wilkerson.
Spokesman-Review reporters Ellen Dennis, Orion Donovan Smith and Nick Gibson contributed to this story.