The depleted ranks of Congress’ once-abundant moderate “blue dog” Democrats received an unexpected replenishment in these parts last year with the election of U.S. Reps. Marie Gluesenkamp-Perez in the 3rd Congressional District (Southwest Washington) and Mary Peltola in Alaska.
Each did the Republic a service. Gluesenkamp-Perez defeated extremist MAGA Republican Joe Kent — he of such proposals as putting presidential pandemic adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci on trial for murder. Peltola halted the political revival of 2008 Republican vice-presidential nominee, ex-Gov. Sarah Palin, becoming the first Indigenous Alaska native to serve in Congress.
The Republicans have already targeted both as low hanging fruit in 2024. Alaska has not voted Democrat for President since Lyndon Johnson carried the 49th state in 1964. Donald Trump has twice carried the 3rd Congressional District in Southwest Washington, and our rust belt has trended Republican in contests for statewide office.
The fates of MGP and Peltola will have nationwide implications. The U.S. House of Representatives is almost evenly divided. Control rests uneasily with 222 Republicans, who have fought two bloody internal battles over the Speakership. The House currently has 214 Democrats, with a pickup likely in a special election if Rep. George Santos, R-New York, gets expelled for his fabricated background and multiple misdeeds.
Republican challengers are already lining up. Alaska’s Lt. Governor Nancy Dahlstrom announced her candidacy last week, promising “to stop the assault on Alaska from Joe Biden and Washington, D.C., liberals.” Already in the race is Nick Begich III, a Republican scion of a Democratic family which has produced one U.S. Senator and a House member.
Joe Kent is seeking a rematch with MGP. He has raised more than $1 million, won an endorsement from the Washington State Republican Party, and is retooling to focus on district issues. Newly announced is Camas City Council member Leslie Marshall Lewallen, a onetime King County deputy prosecutor. She is self-described as a “conservative fighter who wins.”
The Republicans tend to throw resources into one-size-fit-all campaigns. They are already seeking to make Gluesenkamp-Perez look like very very liberal Seattle Rep. Pramila Jayapal. Lewallen labels MGP “Portland Progressive Perez.” In face of the Israel-Hamas war, Kent decries MGP for voting “to keep our troops as sitting ducks in the Middle East war zones like Syria where we have no national interest to justify the deployment.”
MAGA Republicans have a knack for winning primaries but losing general elections. Donald Trump flew to Alaska last year to boost a GOP challenger to GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski, one of seven Republican senators who voted to impeach him after the January 6, 2021, U.S. Capitol insurrection. He heaped abuse on Murkowski and showered praise on Sarah Palin. Murkowski won, while Palin lost to Peltola.
In this state, the Trump-backed Kent bested six-term GOP Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler in the August primary, only to be defeated by MGP in November. Herrera Beutler was one of 10 impeachment votes in the House. She is now running for State Land Commissioner.
Alaska has, in Peltola one of Congress’ few pro-oil Democrats. In MGP, Washington has one of the few Democrats who’ve opposed Biden’s student loan forgiveness plan. Gluesenkamp-Perez argues that the country has shortchanged technical training and should be devoting resources to “people who make stuff.”
The low hanging fruit may prove hard to pluck. Joe Kent will be dogged by such actions as his speech at a Washington, D.C., rally decrying prosecution of the U.S. Capitol insurrectionists. He has argued that the FBI “continues to take us down the road to totalitarianism.” He has proposed “taking away the teeth of the FBI” by defunding it.
In the meantime, hardly a week goes by that MGP does not introduce a new “bipartisan bill” with Republican cosponsor. The latest, this week, legislation to increase transparency and oversight of foreign ownership of American farmland. Gluesenkamp-Perez has mounted a full-court courtship of rural voters.
“Talk is cheap, results matter,” said Dahlstrom, announcing for Congress in Alaska. “Alaska needs Washington, D.C., to stop working against us and no one will work harder for Alaska’s way of life than me.” Begich is promising to “unlock the full potential of our natural resources while ensuring environmental sustainability.”
But Peltola, along with Murkowski, have produced results. The Biden Administration, defying its environmental base, recently approved an energy megaproject on Alaska’s North Slope west of Prudhoe Bay. The Conoco-Phillips Willow development is already underway. It will yield a maximum 180,000 barrels of crude oil a day at maximum production, 40 percent of daily production in the 49th state.
Peltola has opposed the Pebble Mine, a proposed megaproject to locate an enormous open pit gold and copper mine between two of Bristol Bay’s prime salmon spawning streams. Commercial and sport fisheries, as well as Alaska native corporations, have fought against it. The Biden Administration has apparently killed Pebble through use of the Clean Water Act.
Under its crusty publisher Bob Atwood, news stories in the Anchorage Times used to refer to “self-admitted conservationists.” Atwood is deceased and the Times shut down. While still allied with the petroleum industry, Murkowski and Peltola have taken a more balanced approach than Alaska’s old-time boomers.
While polls are rare, Peltola appears to be Alaska’s most popular politician. She is a longtime advocate for Alaska fisheries and chairs the American Seafood Caucus in Congress. She was recently widowed when husband Eugene “Buzzy” Peltola died in a plane crash after leaving off a hunter in western Alaska. Two other state leaders, former U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens and Rep. Nick Begich (grandfather of the House candidate) have lost their lives this way.
Gluesencamp-Perez and Peltola can count on one other plus in seeking to hold House seats. Both are supporters of abortion rights, an issue which has boosted the Democrats. Alaska is a “red” state but of a libertarian bent. Sen. Murkowski has survived wrath of the Republican right while being both pro-choice and a supporter of marriage equality.
The election is nearly a year off, but campaigning is already underway. The Clark County Republicans are featuring Joe Kent, along with State GOP Chairman Jim Walsh and MAGA Republican gubernatorial candidate Semi Bird, at a Christmas social on December 9.
The nation’s 435 House districts are heavily gerrymandered. For instance, the district of House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Jordan snakes west-to-east to bunch together Republican counties. Thanks to such gerrymandering, only 45-50 districts are truly competitive. Consequently, millions of dollars will be spent to defend or depose Gluesenkamp-Perez and Peltola.
It takes days to count mail-in ballots in Washington, and weeks under Alaska’s ranked voting system. Conceivably, the nation could be kept waiting next November for a final vote on which party controls one house of Congress.
One thing is certain: The “blue dogs” are now the hunted rather than the hunters.