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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Central Washington’s Dan Newhouse faces 7 challengers in a primary that tests Trump’s hold on GOP

For nearly a decade, Rep. Dan Newhouse has represented Washington’s deepest-red congressional district, earning a reputation as a pragmatic conservative focused on agriculture and other issues that affect central Washington.

As he seeks a sixth term in the House, the third-generation farmer from Sunnyside touts his accomplishments as a leader among rural Republicans and endorsements from anti-abortion, law enforcement, agriculture, hunting and gun-rights groups. The Aug. 6 primary will test whether his constituents care more about the sum of that record or about a single vote he took years ago.

Newhouse was one of just 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach then-President Donald Trump for his role in the Capitol riot on Jan. 6, 2021. Of those lawmakers, only Newhouse survived a Trump-endorsed challenge to win re-election in 2022, while another won in a Democratic-leaning district and the remaining eight are out of Congress.

“I think people understand that I’m working on those things that are most important to the people of my district,” Newhouse said in an interview. “I understand exactly what the concerns and priorities are of people in this district, because they’re my issues, too. I was born and raised in this district. This is where my business is. My family’s here. So this is very personal to me.”

Now, in an era when the GOP defines itself largely by loyalty to one man, Newhouse finds himself in a deeply awkward position: Despite the former president calling him “weak and pathetic” and endorsing a rival, the congressman said he expects to vote for Trump in November.

“I can’t vote for Joe Biden,” Newhouse said, before the June 27 debate that prompted calls for the president to bow out of the race. “It looks to me like Trump will be the nominee of our party. I’ve always voted Republican in the past and I don’t plan to change that.”

Washington’s unusual primary system, in which the top two finishers advance to the general election regardless of party, helped Newhouse squeeze through a crowded field of candidates in 2022 with barely a quarter of votes before handily defeating a Democrat in the fall. This year, a pair of Trump-aligned GOP challengers and a divided set of Democrats may prove an even tougher challenge.

Jerrod Sessler, a Navy veteran who lives in Prosser and fell short in the 2022 primary, is back to challenge Newhouse with the help of a coveted endorsement from Trump. In an interview, the former stock car racer called himself a “gladiator” and said that while some Republicans play defense to preserve the status quo, “I want to take that ball down the court and I want to stuff it down their throats.”

“I have met President Trump and it’s kind of an interesting story around how I got the endorsement, but I haven’t ever told anybody and I’m not probably going to, for a number of reasons,” Sessler said. “I’m the one who has the ability to win this race. President Trump agrees and we’re just focused on winning.”

Tiffany Smiley, a veterans’ advocate from Pasco, is looking to capitalize on name recognition and a fundraising network left over from her unsuccessful 2022 run against Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash. In an interview, Smiley said she met with Newhouse before he announced his re-election bid, amid rumors that he was considering retirement.

“Even though the political establishment told me to wait my turn, I’m running for Congress now,” Smiley said in a TV ad launched in June.

While Democrats haven’t come close to winning the 4th district since now-Gov. Jay Inslee lost the seat three decades ago, a Democratic candidate has usually received enough votes to advance to the general election and give Newhouse a favorable November matchup. But this time, four self-identified Democrats could split that slice of the electorate, raising the likelihood of two Republicans contesting the general election.

Mary Baechler, a public-health worker from Yakima who won 33.8% of votes when she ran for the same seat in 2012, has launched a campaign focused on climate change and women’s health, including abortion rights. In an interview, she admitted, “It’s kind of a Don Quixote thing to run as a Democrat” in the 4th district.

“I think we need to look at every single thing we do as a country through the lens of climate change,” Baechler said. “Especially thinking of young people and youth and the generations to come, we have to make sure that we’re going to be getting through this OK. We need to take every step we can to reverse it, so whatever I could do within Congress to help them, I would.”

Misty Jane “Birdie” Muchlinski, of Richland, who leads the Benton County Democrats, is pitching herself as a moderate who can win over her conservative neighbors. In an interview, Muchlinski said she had planned to run in 2026 but decided to jump in the race earlier in response to the Supreme Court overturning nationwide protections for abortion and to the set of policy proposals by the Heritage Foundation, a right-wing think tank, known as Project 2025.

“It’s unimaginable for me to consider the amount of campaign funds raised and spent, yet we still have young people that don’t have access to mental health services, or dying from fentanyl overdoses,” she said. “We’ve got an immigration crisis that just seems to be a ball on the court that people just keep passing around instead of actually finding a solution.”

Two other candidates are self-described Democrats who say the party has lost its way. John Malan, an electrician who lives in Ephrata, identifies himself as a MAGA Democrat, borrowing Trump’s “Make America Great Again” acronym. The native of Brooklyn, New York, said he’s running because of Newhouse’s impeachment vote.

“I’m a Democrat in the classical sense, being in the union with organized labor for 35-plus years,” Malan said. “The Republicans don’t have the right to claim that they’re the only ones that want to make America great, and that’s why I chose that label. Because over here in central Washington, to be a Democrat is basically a wasted vote.”

Barry Knowles, a general contractor who lives in King County but said he has extended family in Yakima, is running as part of the “Democrat Party,” using the truncated form often used as an epithet by the Democratic Party’s opponents. Under Washington law, candidates can indicate that they “prefer” any party and don’t need to live in the district they are running to represent.

“It would be tough district to win,” Knowles said. “If I can get past the primary, I think I have a really good sales pitch: Do you want another Republican conservative in the minority party, or would you rather have a conservative Democrat in the majority party?”

Doug White, a Yakima Democrat who finished second to Newhouse in 2022, opted not to run again, instead founding Rural Americans United, a political action committee whose goal is to “rebuild Democratic infrastructure” and compete in local races. In an interview, White said “the math” suggests that the top two primary finishers could both be Republicans.

“We have three very strong Republicans in this race,” he said. “I really believe that the three of them are going to make a race here that should be worthy of national headlines.”

Muchlinski said she and Baechler are on good terms and have talked about trying to consolidate support around a single Democratic candidate, although they haven’t made such a move yet. Shasti Conrad, chair of the Washington State Democrats, said the state party will remain neutral through the primary and hasn’t tried to elevate one candidate.

“We certainly are realistic about the fact that, you know, that has been held for a long time by Republicans,” Conrad said of the 4th district. “But we have two great women candidates who have stepped forward to make sure that we are challenging the messaging that is coming from the Republican Party.”

The race also features independent Benancio “Benny” Garcia III, of Grandview, who picked up about 1.4% of primary votes when he ran as a Republican in 2022. In an interview, he said his platform is based on eliminating federal taxes for anyone who makes under $500,000 a year and listening to the district’s residents, roughly 40% of whom identify as Hispanic or Latino, according to census data.

“I do enjoy the fact that there are so many people running in the race,” Garcia said, “because that’s how our system is supposed to work.”

At the end of the first quarter of 2024, Newhouse reported raising $908,000 with $433,000 on hand, well below the $2.1 million he reported raising in the 2022 cycle. By March 31, Sessler had raised about $82,500 with $3,700 on hand and $474,000 in debt from his 2022 campaign, most of which came from $351,000 in personal loans he made to his own campaign.

Smiley didn’t file a first-quarter report but claimed in a news release Wednesday that she had brought in a “MONSTROUS HAUL” of more than $550,000 since announcing her candidacy. According to FEC filings, Smiley’s 2022 Senate campaign, which ended the 2022 cycle with $1 million in debt, had reduced that number to $462,000 in debt by the end of March.

Sessler claimed that Smiley entered the House race partly to raise money to pay off that debt, but Smiley campaign spokesman Noah Evans said in an email that none of the money raised for her 2024 House race has gone to paying the debt from her 2022 Senate race. “Tiffany specifically asked her donors to help her retire her debt in direct mail and online,” Evans said. “The response was incredibly encouraging.”

None of the other candidates reported raising money in the first quarter of 2024. The Federal Election Commission will release candidates’ second-quarter fundraising numbers on July 15.

Newhouse said his decade in Congress has taught him that while consequential decisions are made there, progress comes only through painstaking, usually bipartisan work.

“It’s a very frustrating place to work, because the process is built to be frustrating,” he said. “I think our forefathers set it up purposely to make it difficult to pass laws, and they were very successful at that, which is probably a good thing. It should be difficult to pass laws that we all have to live under.”

Asked what he’s proudest of, Newhouse’s first answer reflected that reality: He mentioned his yearslong effort to reform immigration laws for agricultural workers, passing a bill twice through the House only to see it die in the Senate.

He also cited his work on the House Appropriations Committee, where he sits on subcommittees that control federal spending on issues that are important to the region he represents: agriculture, rural development, the Food and Drug Administration, energy and water development and homeland security.

“In order to truly be impactful, it takes time being in Congress to truly understand the system,” Newhouse said. “I’ve been able to get myself into positions that are important for central Washington.”

Newhouse said he is proud to have “a very positive, constructive relationship” with both tribal governments in his district, even as he disagrees with the Yakama Nation’s support for breaching the Lower Snake River dams in an effort to restore salmon runs. On the dams, Baechler said she supports the position of Northwest tribes, most of which have endorsed dam removal.

The Colville Confederated Tribes, whose reservation lies partly in the 4th district, endorsed Newhouse in May. He has introduced legislation drafted with the tribes, including bills aimed at shoring up tribal law enforcement and addressing the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous people.

Newhouse is also a member of a House select committee dedicated to countering the influence of the Chinese Communist Party and he chairs the Congressional Western Caucus, a group of mostly Republican lawmakers who represent largely rural districts. In that role, he led a delegation of Republicans to the U.S.-Mexico border in February, using the occasion to criticize the Biden administration while calling for bipartisan border and immigration reform.

Sessler and Smiley have both identified some of those same issues – protecting the dams, tackling the fentanyl crisis and countering the influence of China – as top priorities. In interviews, they expressed grievances with Newhouse that revolve around his criticism of Trump, not any specific policy position.

In a Monday news release, Smiley accused Newhouse of “silence” about steps the Biden administration has taken to explore the eventual breaching of the Lower Snake River dams. Newhouse campaign spokesman Robert Bugner called that “an out-of-touch and outrageous claim from Tiffany Smiley, who will apparently say anything to get elected.”

In the interview, Smiley said she had met with a sheriff who was “extremely disappointed with Dan” because of the fentanyl crisis. When asked which county’s sheriff she had met, Smiley replied, “Well, I don’t know. I’ve actually talked to a lot of counties’ sheriffs and all of them have been very clear that they’re extremely disappointed.”

The Washington Council of Police and Sheriffs, which represents law enforcement agencies across the state, has endorsed Newhouse. The congressman launched a regional fentanyl task force in May 2023 and was chosen by his fellow Republicans in June to lead a new fentanyl policy working group within the House committee dedicated to countering the influence of the Chinese Communist Party.

Other congressional Republicans voiced varying degrees of disapproval with Trump soon after the Capitol riot – when then-House Speaker Kevin McCarthy of California said, “The president bears responsibility for Wednesday’s attack on Congress by mob rioters” – most of those GOP lawmakers fell in line as it became clear that Trump remained popular with their constituents.

Newhouse’s impeachment vote, however, indelibly branded him as disloyal. While he defeated White with more than 66% of votes in 2022 and no independent polls have been conducted on the 2024 race, Smiley and Sessler said they have internal polling that shows Newhouse is vulnerable. Both declined to share details on those surveys.

Smiley said “an outside group” that had conducted a poll recruited her to run. Asked about the group that recruited her, she said, “I don’t even really know their name.” Asked to describe the group, she replied, “I have no idea.”

“I wasn’t really even paying attention to this race, but people started coming to me and saying, ‘Hey, look, be ready. It sounds like Dan Newhouse is done,’” she said. “Which would make sense, because as we started to see Donald Trump rising in the polls and clearly becoming the nominee for our party, that made a lot of sense for our district.”

Smiley said she flew to D.C. to meet with Newhouse in early 2024 and told him she intended to enter the race. Newhouse confirmed that the meeting took place and said he had asked Smiley what he had done to make her want to challenge him. In Newhouse’s account, Smiley didn’t mention his impeachment vote or any other specific disagreement.

“I believe that securing our border and protecting American families from the fentanyl and crime that’s coming across the border is the No. 1 priority in Congress on Day 1,” Smiley said in the interview. “And I believe that Trump absolutely deserves a Congress that will work with him to get those priorities across the line immediately.”

Smiley claimed that Sessler is a vegan and wants to impose a new federal tax on beef. In response, Sessler said he has made an effort to eat “a lot of raw, fresh, organic food” since a bout with cancer 25 years ago but he eats beef, and he called Smiley’s claim that he wants to tax meat “a complete lie.”

Meanwhile, Sessler claimed that Smiley colluded with Newhouse to enter the race to split the Republican vote and hurt Sessler’s chances. Newhouse denied that categorically. In an email, Smiley campaign spokesman Noah Evans didn’t directly deny it but continued the campaign’s line of attack against Newhouse, saying that Smiley entered the race because the incumbent congressman “couldn’t see the writing on the wall.”

Sessler, who said he has been campaigning full time since beginning his first run against Newhouse, has aligned himself closely with Trump and the far-right House Freedom Caucus. Several of that group’s members and its political arm, the House Freedom Fund, have endorsed Sessler. That slate of endorsements, he said, “means that I’ve already got a team of about 10% of Congress that will likely side with me on stuff that we want to push through.”

Rep. Russ Fulcher, a Freedom Caucus member who represents North Idaho, spoke at a kickoff event for Newhouse’s re-election campaign. Fulcher campaign spokeswoman Julie Johnson said the two lawmakers have partnered on issues that affect their districts, including efforts to protect the Lower Snake River dams, but she declined to say whether Fulcher had endorsed Newhouse.

In Congress, Sessler said, he wants to “hold people accountable who have participated in illegal activities,” suggesting “a Nuremberg-type trial” to examine “this whole cover-up with the COVID thing.” He said that “people who forced people onto ventilators” and the antiviral drug remdesivir had “killed millions of people.”

Remdesivir has been the subject of numerous and repeatedly debunked conspiracy theories. Clinical trials have found no increase in mortality among COVID-19 patients treated with the drug, which is intended for those with severe illness.

He also repeated unfounded claims that the 2020 election was fraudulent and that the Jan. 6 Capitol riot was instigated by paid infiltrators, that rioters were allowed to enter the Capitol, and that then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., prevented the National Guard from responding to the riot.

Sessler cited Proverbs 14:4 – “Where no oxen are, the crib is clean, but much increase comes by the strength of the ox” – to say that prosperity follows “a very messy time in history.”

“The Civil War is a great example, because it was primarily about unity among the states, which happened, and it’s been successful ever since then,” Sessler said. “Right now, we’re in the midst of another so-called progressive era that is going to be followed by a time of abundance. And so I think the American people should be very happy. I think they should be excited. I think they ought to fight hard and elect people like me to make sure that we see that abundant harvest happen.”

Rep. Pete Sessions, a Texas Republican who served as best man at Newhouse’s wedding in 2018, said he was sitting next to Newhouse when Trump met with House Republicans at the Capitol on June 13 and railed against the Republicans who had voted to impeach him. Newhouse didn’t flinch, Sessions said.

“Dan is one of those members that I believe comes to Washington solely for the right reason,” Sessions said, adding that Republicans need to expand their tent if they want to win durable majorities in Congress. “If we want fewer numbers, we would just go and pick a Trump person for every seat. This is a model that the president should respect and understand, and Republicans should respect and understand.”

Correction: This story was revised on July 12 to accurately describe the focus of Mary Baechler’s campaign.