Marie Gluesenkamp Perez waded through a soggy Juneteenth event with her campaign manager, tugging a cart of newly made yard signs. It was six weeks before the Washington state primaries. The congressional candidate was a virtual unknown.
As she greeted most people, she introduced herself as simply “the Democrat running for the 3rd Congressional District.” The distinction was necessary. The race so far has been dominated by Republicans.
When Vancouver resident Siobhana McEwen recognized the candidate and said she looked up her platform, Perez lit up.
“Oh, that’s awesome,” she said, adding that she hoped McEwen found her campaign website helpful.
A mini-townhall kicked off. Perez fielded McEwen’s questions about her views on the district and her platform. An auto shop owner by trade, Perez hovered on economic concerns like a lack of family-wage jobs and the rising costs of day care and housing.
Her race will be in the glare of national spotlight, as are all races this year that involve Republicans who voted, as U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler did, to impeach former President Donald Trump.
While Republicans immediately rushed to wrestle the seat from Herrera Beutler, Democrats have largely no-showed. Perez only entered the race in February and she’s raised barely any cash.
Still, she and other local Democrats are determined, even as the national party pays little attention. They are mounting a coordinated final kick ahead of the Aug. 2 primary. They believe Perez can corner the market on the district’s liberal voters.
“It’s never been a bluer district,” Perez told OPB in May. “Our party is coming together because we know we can win this seat.”
In Washington’s primary system, the two highest vote-getters advance to the general election regardless of party, leaving the possibility that a pair of Republicans can land on the November ballot. A trio of GOP candidates are by far the most visible.
That may be an advantage for a Democrat, not an obstacle. According to volunteer Ruth Kendall, Perez can make it through if she nabs eight out of 10 blue voters in the primary.
“We’re not looking to convert any Republicans at this point,” said Kendall, a Longview city councilor. “There are people that don’t realize we have a good Democratic candidate. We need to get the word out. We need to get people to realize Marie is an option – a damn good option.”
Republicans with the megaphone
Born and raised outside of Houston, Texas, Perez claims deep northwestern roots. Her mother’s family came as loggers before Washington had statehood, she said. She frequently points out her great-grandparents are buried in the district, in the city of Tenino.
Her father emigrated from Mexico. In Perez’s youth, he ran a Spanish-language church. She recounts witnessing congregants from Central and South America facing deportation during the George W. Bush administration.
“Their kids in high school, in junior high, would get left behind,” Perez said. “Those kids are American citizens, right? They’re born here. And that’s generational damage to American citizens.
“So my parents really impressed on us the importance of being engaged in your community and trying to fix things,” she added.
Perez said she always wanted to move to the Pacific Northwest. She stayed in the region after earning an economics degree from Reed College, then met her husband and started a family. Besides the couple’s auto repair shop, Perez was executive director of the downtown association for the town of Stevenson.
She didn’t intend to run for Congress, she said, but seeing the race’s overwhelmingly conservative tilt compelled her.
“This is too important of a point, I think, in our history to leave the seat undefended,” she said. “This is a perfect storm.”
Campaign finance figures and polling show the three most visible campaigns belong to Herrera Beutler, career soldier and Fox News pundit Joe Kent, and Christian podcaster and speaker Heidi St. John.
With a combined fundraising that will easily eclipse $6 million before Aug. 2, the candidates are already pumping out media buys. Both challengers target Herrera Beutler while blaming Democrats for high rates of inflation.
For comparison, Perez had raised $67,059 by the end of March. By this point in 2020, political science professor Carolyn Long had about $1.1 million cash on hand as the Democrat sought to unseat Herrera Beutler. Wealthy Democratic donors appear to be sitting out the primary in the 3rd District, possibly because of the fierce attention the race is getting from the Republican Party.
But Perez said she thinks she is more in line with the district’s voters on issues that have gained recent urgency, such as gun laws and abortion.
All three Republicans oppose abortion rights. On guns, Kent and St. John staunchly oppose restrictions. Herrera Beutler’s campaign contends the congresswoman supports “reforms that make gun ownership safer as long as they do not inhibit law-abiding citizens from exercising their Constitutional rights.” Herrera Beutler voted against a bipartisan set of gun laws that recently passed in the wake of mass shootings in Uvalde, Texas, and Buffalo, New York.
Kent and St. John also have both promoted conspiracies around election fraud and COVID-19. Kent, in March, had to distance himself from white nationalists.
It was Kent’s campaign, which has landed Trump’s endorsement and frequent appearances on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show, that at least partially drove Perez to run for Congress.
“He’s an extremist,” she told a group around a park bench at the Juneteenth celebration. “And extremists can’t pass bills. They don’t negotiate. They don’t get things done.”
The high visibility of Republicans has deflated some local Democrats.
When asked how she felt about the current slate of candidates, McEwen, the Vancouver resident at the Juneteenth event, sighed.
“As disappointed as I am with the candidates in the field on the Republican side, I’m equally disappointed with the field on the Democratic side,” McEwen said. “I do think the energy and the culture in the community, and in the 3rd District, is changing and there’s a lot of work that could be done.”
In search of Democrats
It wasn’t that long ago that a Democrat led the field in Washington’s 3rd District. Brent Hennrich polled at 32.8% in March, according to Trafalgar Group, outpacing Kent, Herrera Beutler and St. John.
Yet Hennrich, a stay-at-home father who ran largely on a health care platform, never seemed to galvanize donors. In a 15-month campaign, he raised about $77,000.
He abruptly withdrew in May, and pleaded for Democrats to consolidate around Perez.
“There was no mathematical path to us both staying in and one of us being successful,” Hennrich said. “At the end of the day, I said the whole time I stand with democracy. So if I was going to stand on what I’ve said for 15 months, then it required me to get out of the race.”
State and local parties have coalesced. Within two weeks of Hennrich’s withdrawal, two of the largest Democratic parties in the region — those of Clark and Cowlitz counties — officially threw their support behind Perez. The state Democratic Party dispatched field organizers.
On a Sunday in late June, more than a dozen volunteers stood at R.A. Long High School in Longview. They prepared to fan out through neighborhoods to push for a valuable batch of voters: Democrats who have voted in primaries.
“Right now, our best bet to get through the primary is to get all the Democrat votes out,” said Summer O’Neill, chair of the Cowlitz County Democratic Party.
At this stage, doorknocking is as much offense as defense. O’Neill told the group she’d heard rumblings of Democrats considering voting for Herrera Beutler to avoid seeing Kent and St. John advance.
“There’s been a lot of this silly, ‘Oh Jaime Herrera Beutler, she’s not so bad, she voted for impeachment,’” O’Neill said. “But people are horrified about Joe Kent? (Herrera Beutler and Kent are) going to vote the same way.”
According to the sports and politics website FiveThirtyEight.com, Herrera Beutler voted alongside Trump nearly 80% of the time.
Herrera Beutler’s recent campaign ads, however, appear to stake out the district’s political middle ground. One launched in June depicts a Vancouver mom recounting skyrocketing medical costs for her two diabetic sons. Piano chords underscore as the mother says Herrera Beutler is “fighting… for all of us.”
To Jim Moore, director of political outreach at the Tom McCall Center for Civic Engagement at Pacific University, the incumbent’s messaging is making a quiet appeal.
“She’s playing that she’s a known quantity,” Moore said. “And she’s also playing what she thinks the people in the 3rd District want: ‘We’re an independent group here. Come be independent with me.’”
Historically, such attempts to woo crossover voters have rarely succeeded in converting voters from the other party, Moore noted.
“It’s something that sounds good on talk radio,” he said. “But when we look at the actual results, we don’t see evidence that it really does anything.”
Still, Herrera Beutler has two things over the rest of the field: the biggest war chest and incumbency. Incumbency is “as good a guarantee as you can get,” Moore said.
Perez is less convinced. She told OPB she believed the district’s conservatives have largely abandoned Herrera Beutler. Perez thinks Democrats won’t help Herrera Beutler, and the moderates she’s courting aren’t enough.
After the primary, Perez expected it will be her and Kent to make it through. She said she hoped that those moderates will be put off by Kent. And Democrats nationally may once again see the 3rd as a winnable seat, and a central piece in November’s fight to control the U.S. House.
“We’re confident that when this is a race between me and Joe Kent, Democrats across the nation are going to turn the money hose on this race,” Perez said. “This will be one of the most competitive races in the country.”