VANCOUVER, Wash. — Republican U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler conceded defeat in Washington’s primary election Tuesday night, dramatically upending a political status quo that had held for more than a decade in Washington’s 3rd Congressional District.
Democrat Marie Gluesenkamp Perez and far-right Republican Joe Kent, both political newcomers, are the top two finishers who will advance to a November runoff.
It's a sharp swerve for the conservative Southwest Washington district where Herrera Beutler has been essentially untouchable since she first won the seat in 2010.
She won reelection by more than 20 percentage points in the 2012, 2014 and 2016 general elections, and she also finished first in every one of her previous primary elections as an incumbent, often with more than 50% of the vote.
Her closest previous race was in 2018, when Republicans nationwide struggled against voter backlash to President Donald Trump. But even then, she finished the primary with 42.1% to Democrat Carolyn Long’s 35.3%, and no other candidate reached 10%.
She went on to defeat Long 52.7% to 47.3% in the general election, and she won by larger margins when she faced Long again in 2020.
The impeachment vote
This year, Herrera Beutler faced serious opposition from within her own party for the first time, most of it focused on a single decision: her vote to impeach Trump for inciting the mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. She was one of only 10 House Republicans to vote for impeachment.
Kent is endorsed by Trump and has echoed the former president's false claims that Joe Biden didn't legitimately win the 2020 election. In an interview with KGW, Kent criticized Herrera Beutler for voting to certify the election results and said her vote to impeach Trump was the final straw that pushed him into the race.
Kent and another far-right challenger, Heidi St. John, emerged as frontrunners alongside Herrera Beutler and Gluesenkamp Perez, and Kent in particular picked up significant financial support. The airwaves in Southwest Washington were dominated by attack ads from the Kent and Herrera Beutler campaigns leading up to the Aug. 2 primary.
Gluesenkamp Perez took an early lead and finished in first. The Republican vote was split between Herrera Beutler and Kent, with St. John also netting a sizeable share. Herrera Beutler had about a 4.4% lead in early results, but Kent gained ground in every subsequent update and overtook her on Monday.
"I think the reaction everybody has right now is just 'wow!'" said Republican strategist Rebecca Tweed. "Really unexpected at the level of experience that (Herrera Beutler) had. You know, in the same vein (Kent) ran a really intense, really grassroots-focused campaign. We knew he was making it competitive. But in any case, unseating an incumbent at that level is — it’s just a 'wow!'"
Looking toward November
With Herrera Beutler out and two political newcomers advancing to the general election, the district is heading into uncharted territory. KGW's Pat Dooris reached out to Tweed, Pacific University professor Jim Moore and KGW political analyst Len Bergstein to try to get the new lay of the land.
First of all, does Kent’s victory mean the district is heading in a more Trumpist direction? Not necessarily, Moore said — it's a conservative district, but the primary results point to deep division among Republican voters, with only partial support for Kent's hardline and explicitly pro-Trump politics.
"There were at least two pro-Trump candidates in here, and when you put their votes together you get about 38% of the total vote in the primary," he said. "So does that mean the whole district is going Trump? I don’t think so at this point."
The question will be whether the district's Republican voters will now come together behind Kent, he said, or if Herrera Beutler's more moderate voters might consider breaking ranks and voting for a Democrat.
"It sets up a very interesting campaign," Bernstein added, "where this 3rd Congressional District, which has been a stronghold for Republicans for these six terms, and Jaime Herrera Beutler has held off challengers very effectively, might not be quite so easy for the Republicans to hold on to in this particular race with an unknown and untested person like Joe Kent."
On the other hand, Kent's unseating of an incumbent is going to leave his voters fired up, Tweed said, generating a lot of enthusiasm with just a few months to go before the general election.
"Clearly there's a lot of conservatives making their voice heard in a traditionally conservative district anyways," she said. "So if I'm Joe Kent, I'm feeling really energized. If I'm the Perez team, I'm looking to the strategy board pretty quick to see which voters do we talk to and how often."
It's also not as simple as just adding up the percentages that each party's candidates got in the primary to predict the general election breakdown, according to Moore.
"The general election's going to have about twice as many people actually turn out to vote," he said. "So it’s going to be a more accurate representation of the district as a whole, as compared to those who felt really motivated to turn out in the primary election."
One thing that is certain: The race is going to continue to attract big money, and the pace of the political ads is going to remain high as the two newcomers seek to make their cases to a wider swath of district's voters.
"These congressional district races most often are determined by who makes the best pitch to people about who can represent them best, who cares most about their issues, and I don't think that either Joe Kent or Perez at this point is a very developed personality on that issue to their voters," Bergstein said.