Incumbent U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler and Democrat Marie Gluesenkamp Perez jumped out to early leads Tuesday night in the Republican-heavy race for Southwest Washington’s congressional seat.
Neither candidate could officially claim victory, however, with votes still being counted. Perez, who celebrated with supporters at a downtown Vancouver restaurant, said she felt confident she’d be on the ballot in November.
“It’s a huge win for Democracy tonight,” said Perez, 34, who lives in Skamania County and runs an auto shop in Portland. She made the case that voters are tired of the “status quo,” alluding to Herrera Beutler.
“They are hungry for effective representation that knows how tough it is to run a small business in this economy,” she said. “How hard it is to make those financial choices between putting money away for retirement or putting your kid in a good day care. These are the realities facing most of the voters in this district.”
Early results showed Perez, with 34,229 votes, held a seven-point lead over Herrera Beutler’s 26,373 votes. Election workers will continue to count votes this week, and standings could change when they release the next ballot count Wednesday evening.
Election officials did not expect to release any more vote totals Tuesday.
The top two candidates, regardless of party, will advance to the general election in November. If results hold up, Perez and Herrera Beutler will shut out two candidates who strived to capture former president Donald Trump’s base, but couldn’t unify it.
Joe Kent, a Trump-endorsed former Green Beret, trailed Herrera Beutler and a top-two slot by approximately 5,000 votes as of Tuesday evening. Heidi St. John, a Christian podcaster and home school advocate, was roughly another 5,000 votes behind Kent.
Together, those two conservatives received about 38,000 votes, combined, according to preliminary election results. Three-quarters of voters in the early returns chose someone other than the incumbent.
Herrera Beutler, who said in a call with reporters that she wasn’t ready to analyze the voter data, described feeling excited by her placement so far in the race.
“I came in tonight very cautiously optimistic and right now ... I remain cautiously optimistic,” Herrera Beutler said. “Obviously, we are not done. We ran through the tape, but what I appear to see is folks are very interested in making sure that whoever represents Southwest Washington is focused here on Southwest Washington.”
At his election party at a Battle Ground bar, Kent said the race was still too close to call. He predicted election workers would continue counting votes through the end of the week.
“I think it’s so close that I don’t know if we’ll be able to make any kind of statement tonight,” Kent told OPB.
When asked if he would accept the results if he finished outside the top two positions, Kent said yes. Kent had previously joined lawsuits seeking audits of Southwest Washington election results in the 2020 presidential election.
“I think we should still do a forensic audit of 2020. I think it’s always good to audit. If I win, I think it’s good to audit, too,” he said. “By the end of the week I think we’ll be able to say, ‘Let’s go November!’ or ‘We ran a good race and let’s get behind whoever the challenger is against Jaime.’”
For Democrats, Perez’s lead seemed to confirm Southwest Washington as a district bluer than it once was. The candidate staged a mostly come-from-behind campaign with a shoestring budget easily eclipsed by the three Republican candidates in the field. She only announced her campaign in February.
According to campaign finance data, Perez raised $241,424.45 through the middle of summer — the most recent filing quarter. By comparison, Herrera Beutler raised $3.5 million; Kent, $2.2 million; and St. John, $1 million.
“This was a lot of sweat and tears, and not a lot of money,” Perez said Tuesday night.
Like the other candidates, she noted the results are not finalized. Still, Perez said she felt confident that she was bound for the November ballot. She added that it didn’t matter if she faced Herrera Beutler or Kent.
“Whether it’s Jaime or it’s Joe that makes it through, I’m running against an extremist,” she said, noting Herrera Beutler supported the overturn of Roe v. Wade and recently voted against bills that would have codified same-sex marriage and the right to contraception.
For conservatives, the results Tuesday night seemed to suggest that things are right where they were two years ago. The Republican campaigns kicked off with fury in January 2021, just three months after Herrera Beutler won re-election for a seventh time. It was her vote to impeach Trump that ignited Kent’s and St. John’s campaigns.
Kent in particular grew into a fierce challenger, and his campaign has also been particularly divisive. His career in the U.S. Special Forces and a personal story of his wife’s death by a suicide bombing in Syria helped make him a darling of conservative media.
Kent made frequent appearances on a podcast hosted by former Trump advisor Steve Bannon, whom a federal jury recently convicted for refusing to testify about the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol. Kent also regularly showed up as a guest and analyst on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show.
Yet even as the district’s conservative wing shared Herrera Beutler as a common enemy, it struggled to coalesce around a single challenger. Much of the bad blood dates back to a March 2021 vow by multiple Republicans to withdraw and support whoever won Trump’s endorsement. When Kent secured it, St. John remained in the race, and the two have regularly traded barbs in public and on social media.
Deep-pocketed political entities have tried to exploit that disarray, federal election filings show, seemingly to the benefit of Herrera Beutler. Television and radio stations have been inundated with attack ads among the three GOP candidates.
Outside groups have spent more than $4.3 million in the race, making it among the top 10 races in the country for such spending, according to the campaign financing group OpenSecrets. About $2.5 million has been spent against Kent, while hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent to support St. John, whose campaign brought in less than either of her Republican rivals.
Kent has regularly vented his belief that the spending to boost St. John was meant to divide the district’s most conservative voters.
“I’m the only candidate that actually has a pathway to victory against Jaime Herrera Beutler,” he said at a recent town hall outside Vancouver, describing the spending as “death by a thousand cuts.”
On Tuesday night at the Battle Ground bar, Kent expressed contentment about the campaign he’d run.
“I think we left it all out there on the field,” he said.
When asked about his future if he doesn’t advance onto the general election, Kent said he hoped to remain active in politics, but wasn’t sure if he’d make another run for elected office.
“I don’t know if I’d jump back into that,” he said. “Gearing up into ‘24, I’d probably look to help out the Trump team with whatever they’re doing, or staying active here in the community. I just have to see what happens.”