Christina seemed stunned when my wife and I knocked on her door in Longview and asked if she was voting for the Democratic candidate for Congress in Southwest Washington.
“Dems? I don’t vote for THEM!” she scoffed. Now it was our turn to be surprised. With only 10 days to go before the general election, we were using a list of Democratic voters to get out the vote for Marie Gluesenkamp Perez (MGP), a candidate for Congress in WA-03. This would happen a few times as we canvassed a working class neighborhood in the old mill town at the confluence of the Columbia and Cowlitz rivers.
To get on this list, Christina must have voted for a Democrat (maybe Obama) in recent years. But now she was enthusiastically backing Joe Kent, the far-right Republican backed by former President Trump.
I returned to the third district a week later, and this time canvassed alone for MGP in Vancouver, a growing city (almost 200,000 residents) that now has its own suburbs, and serves for many as home-away-from-work in Portland, Oregon, right across the river. My reception here was different.
“Marie is the one running against the crazy MAGA guy, right? Yeah, I’m definitely voting for her,” Sherry said from her home at the end of a newly developed cul-de-sac.
Sherry’s Democrat beat Christina’s Republican in the close midterm election, flipping a seat that had been held by the GOP for more than a decade. FiveThirtyEight, a political polling aggregator affiliated with ABC, had forecast that Kent had a 98 percent chance of winning the race. Trump won here by 4 points two years ago.
But MGP defied the odds, winning big in purplish Clark County (Vancouver) and minimizing her losing margin in reddening Cowlitz County (Longview). The stunning upset is a tale of two cities, a tale of promise and peril for Democrats in Washington and throughout much of the U.S. It’s also a tale of two strikingly different candidates competing in a mostly (80 percent) white district that used to have a lot of manufacturing jobs.
WA-03 stretches north from Vancouver to Grand Mound in southern Thurston County, encompassing Clark, Cowlitz, and Lewis counties along that woody stretch of I-5. But it also includes Pacific and Wahkiakum counties toward the coast, as well as Skamania and Klickitat counties along the Columbia.
U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler was defeated here in the August primary, making this a hotly contested race for an open seat. The GOP incumbent angered her most conservative supporters when she joined just nine fellow Republicans and all House Democrats voting to impeach Trump for inspiring rioters on January 6, 2021 to storm the Capitol in a desperate effort to block congressional certification of President Biden’s election victory.
Kent, who came in second behind Gluesenkamp Perez in the primary, won Trump’s endorsement by questioning the official results of the presidential election and by treating as “political prisoners” those charged with crimes in the January 6 insurrection. He has called for an investigation of the FBI, suggesting that it – not Trump – fomented the violent attack that day.
A former Green Beret and intelligence officer, Kent survived 11 tours, mostly in Iraq, but his wife, a Navy cryptologist, did not. She was killed by an ISIS suicide bomber in Syria, leaving Joe a single father with two very young kids. He resigned his post and moved in with his parents in Portland, where he began writing opinion pieces blaming the “Administrative State” for America’s “forever wars.” He soon moved across the state line to rural Clark County, and began following far right sources on social media.
With his compelling personal story, extreme political opinions, and Hollywood good looks, Kent eventually became a favorite on FOX News, especially Tucker Carlson’s show. He also has appeared several times on Steve Bannon’s podcast. He affiliated with extremists in the House GOP caucus, including Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene and Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz. And he aligned himself with white nationalists.
Kent signaled support for the “Great Replacement” theory, suggesting that undocumented immigrants are “invading” the U.S. and replacing American workers. He also believes COVID is a scam cooked up in a lab, that the vaccines promoted to fight it represent “experimental gene therapy,” and that White House health adviser Anthony Fauci should be tried for murder. Climate change, too, is exaggerated, he argues; it is not caused by humans and efforts to combat it will only enrich the Chinese Communist Party. Russia, according to Kent, had “legitimate concerns” when it invaded Ukraine. He agreed that Ukrainian president Zelensky is a “thug.” And he favors a no-exceptions abortion ban.
As a Seattle progressive, I was thoroughly frightened by Kent and, at least initially, not terrifically wowed by MGP, who opposes, for example, a ban on assault weapons. Over time, though, I came to view her as an extraordinarily savvy politician – the kind of Democrat who could regain lost turf in white, working-class districts across the country.
Gluesenkamp Perez framed herself as a moderate “problem solver,” not an ideologue or celebrity – someone who knows how to work with her hands. She and her husband built their own home, “nail by nail,” in heavily forested Skamania County, and they co-own an auto mechanic shop in Portland. In one campaign ad, MGP emerges in coveralls from underneath a car being repaired.
She grew up in Texas, the daughter of a Mexican immigrant father who met Marie’s mother at Western Washington University. In flyers, the political newcomer stressed her family’s blue-collar roots in construction and logging. Although she graduated from Reed, perhaps the Northwest’s premier liberal arts college, the candidate carefully avoided sounding like a smarty-pants. She did discuss education but focused on high school shop classes and two-year trade schools: “We need to train people to make things.”
MGP is a mother who champions reproductive rights. But on the campaign trail, she talked most about bread and butter issues — the need for small-business, blue-collar jobs and a solid safety net. On behalf of the timber industry, she highlighted efforts to move from plastic packaging to cardboard, and to increase the manufacturing of biochar from timber slag for soil enrichment. She promised to defend Social Security and championed proposals to improve health care and social programs. On weekdays, she and her husband drive their toddler to the auto shop because they can’t avoid the cost of day care.
Her message about hard work with greasy hands resonated in Longview, a former timber town that still has a very busy port handling lumber, pulp, grain, and steel.
Longview popped up a century ago as a new home for lumber production and about 50,000 millworkers. R.A. Long, a Missouri timber baron, built it virtually from scratch, hiring an urban planner from St. Louis who designed something grand in the style of Washington DC with diagonal avenues spreading from a civic square and park. The plan incorporated a local high school, public library, YMCA, downtown hotel, and a daily newspaper – all gifts from the new overlord. (Disclosure: I used to write for that newspaper.)
With the wood-products industry in decline, Longview is smaller and a bit poorer today. It still has a population of roughly 38,000, making it the largest town in a county that once was a Democratic stronghold filled with blue-collar workers carrying union cards. However, like other American towns dominated by the so-called “white working class,” it has drifted away from the Democratic Party. While Obama won Cowlitz County by more than 11 points in 2008 and by 4 points in 2012, Trump won by more than 14 points in 2016. The MAGA leader did even better in 2020, winning by 17 points. Cowlitz was one of only four counties in Washington to become redder in that election.
In the 2022 election, MGP outpaced other Democrats on the ballot in Cowlitz County. While U.S. Sen. Patty Murray won less than 40 percent here in her bid for re-election, Gluesenkamp Perez grabbed 45 percent.
But the Democrat did best in far more populous Clark County, earning 55 percent of the vote.
What worked in Vancouver and environs was probably the negative message about Kent’s extremism. Like suburban communities around the country, Clark County is more educated (31 percent have at least a bachelors degree – almost double the share of the Cowlitz population), and a bit wealthier (with a median household income of $77,000, compared to Cowlitz’s $59,000). Folks here care about schools and crime; they favor stability. Gluesenkamp Perez hammered home the message that Kent wanted to “defund” the FBI.
In the mid-1970s, when I lived across the river in Portland, Vancouver was a small town of about 40,000. But its location along I-5 and its proximity to Portland’s international airport made it attractive to high-tech manufacturers like Intel, Hewlett-Packard, and IBM. Clark College, a two-year school, became an educational hub. And the city’s downtown underwent a successful redevelopment, making Vancouver look more like a city. But it continued to have a suburban vibe; it expanded through annexation, absorbing 30 square miles and 100,000 residents in the 1990s.
Herrera-Beutler, the Republican incumbent, used to hold her own in Clark County. Voters here may have trended Democratic, but they also appreciated that Republican’s moderation. In a hypothetical general election, JHB likely could have competed well with MGP, even in sprawling Vancouver.
The lesson for Democrats in blue-collar districts? Emphasize jobs and a solid safety net. The lesson for Democrats in suburban districts? Project pragmatism, and pray for an extremist rival.