Mark Jager is facing an important question: Who should he vote for in the Southwest Washington congressional race?
The 64-year-old is among the 49,001 people who voted for U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler in the Aug. 2 primaries. After the incumbent’s middle-of-the-road campaign failed, Jager and many of the congresswoman’s supporters who spoke to OPB say they are looking at the November ballot like a fork in the road.
“I thought Jaime had a big enough lead,” said Jager, a Vancouver retiree. “I was just shocked at the results. And now here we are.”
One option is Joe Kent, a Republican endorsed by Donald Trump whose central goal was to topple Herrera Beutler as retribution for her impeachment vote. The other choice is a Democrat: auto shop owner Marie Gluesenkamp Perez.
Jager, who has never voted for a Democrat for federal office and supported Trump in both 2016 and 2020, said he’s now leaning toward Gluesenkamp Perez.
“I’m not against going to the other side, even though I haven’t voted Democratic,” he said. “I think I’ve changed over the years since Trump, where I am open to some change. If I had to choose, I would not go back to what we had during the years of Trump.”
It won’t be clear until November how independents and self-described moderate Republicans will vote, but precinct data from the primary suggest those voters will likely tip the scales in Washington’s 3rd Congressional District.
While Kent has yet to show any inclination toward moderating his platform — which echoes far-right members of Congress like Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, Matt Gaetz of Florida and Paul Gosar of Arizona — the Gluesenkamp Perez campaign has been vocal about pursuing the district’s political center.
Between Kent, Christian podcaster and public speaker Heidi St. John and state representative Vicki Kraft, about 41% of the district voted in August for a candidate more conservative than Herrera Beutler. Gluesenkamp Perez, the sole Democrat, garnered 31%.
Phil Gardner, Gluesenkamp Perez’s campaign manager, said in an interview that her campaign believes they can sway enough of the remaining bloc in the final two months before Election Day.
“We’re not asking them to become liberals or progressives,” Gardner said. “We’re just asking them to let us win their vote and defeat Joe Kent, and the dark impulses he presents.”
According to Gardner, the strategy is simple: shore up the district’s urban, blue-leaning areas, and, perhaps more importantly, close the gaps in the vastly rural and Republican-dominant ones.
“It’s not just where you’re winning,” Gardner said, speaking outside a Lewis County library after a recent Gluesenkamp Perez town hall. In the primary, three out of four voters in the county chose a Republican.
“If a Democrat can get 30% versus 20%, that’s a huge difference,” Gardner said. “That margin, when you add that up across the district, that can really make the difference.”
Since the primary, the Gluesenkamp Perez campaign has hit events in Republican-leaning areas such as Ridgefield, Longview and on the coast in Pacific County. In that time, the campaign raised $600,000 in the month of August.
That’s a promising sign to Democrats elsewhere. National-level Democrats, who have repeatedly declined to comment on the race previously, now say they are “continuing to watch this seat closely.”
Tina Podlodowski, chair of the Washington State Democratic Party, said she intends to make multiple visits to the district as plans ramp up ahead of November. She said the party recently set up an office in Republican-leaning Cowlitz County.
“We really believe Marie needs to be who she is,” Podlodowski said. To her, Gluesenkamp Perez can win voters in historically blue-collar areas by highlighting she’s a small business owner from rural Skamania County who supports unions and working-class jobs.
“Look, she’s a gun owner,” Podlodowski added. “She believes in responsible gun ownership, and she’s very clear about Second Amendment rights — that’s always been a part of who she is, and that represents her district very well.”
Gluesenkamp Perez still faces an uphill battle, according to national prognosticators. Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a website at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, predicts the district is still “likely Republican.”
The Cook Political Report also considers the district “lean Republican.” Still, that rating is a downgrade from the report’s earlier “solid Republican” rating before it became clear Gluesenkamp Perez and Kent would face off.
The Gluesenkamp Perez campaign is already getting help from at least one major Herrera Beutler supporter. David Nierenberg, a wealthy entrepreneur and one of the congresswoman’s biggest supporters, said he has already helped raise a “six-figure number” for her.
In an interview, Nierenberg expressed as much opposition to Kent as support for Gluesenkamp Perez. He said he is reaching out to a web of like-minded people to financially support the Democrat, whom he believes can work across the aisle.
“There are plenty of us who do still believe in the fundamentals of the Constitution and of democracy and civility and decency,” he said. “We don’t need to win the majority of Republicans to win. We need to win Democrats. We need to win many Independents.”
Deanna Rusch, a family law attorney who once volunteered for the presidential ticket of John McCain and Sarah Palin, said she similarly reached out to the Gluesenkamp Perez campaign once Herrera Beutler lost. Gluesenkamp Perez will be the second Democrat she’s voted for federal office, she said, after supporting Joe Biden in 2020.
“I don’t consider myself even aligned with the Republican Party at all anymore,” Rusch said.
As a former Camas city councilor, she said she has offered to introduce the Gluesenkamp Perez campaign to more moderate Republicans and independents in eastern Clark County, where Herrera Beutler fared well.
“I’ve been in touch with them just to make myself available. If there’s anybody they want to meet ... I just told them I’m here for you if you need me,” Rusch said. “This is not about me at all. It’s about really caring about my community and caring about the people and wanting the best for them.”
Jager, the retiree in Vancouver, voted for Trump in both 2016 and 2020. He supported his fiscal policies. Looking back, he recalls feeling anxious over the economy even as it did well during those years.
“Things could come tumbling down with a single tweet. It was a rollercoaster of four years. And it was just exhausting,” Jager said.
After the last election, Jager conceded, he joined other Republicans in considering whether any widespread fraud occurred to oust Trump.
“At first I thought that, you know, who am I to question that it didn’t? If people are saying it did, the right way to pursue it is through the court system,” Jager said.
Despite proclaiming fraud, Trump’s lawsuits were almost all dismissed, including lawsuits filed in courtrooms presided over by Trump-appointed judges. None proved widespread voter fraud that changed the results of the election.
“Every one of those suits had their day in court,” Jager said. “Game over. Our guy lost. It’s time for a nice, smooth, civil transition. And that we clearly did not see.”
It remains unclear how moderate Republicans and Independents will vote. Jager and Rusch both expected a lot of Republicans will either vote the party line or may continue to view Gluesenkamp Perez as too far left. They both expressed hope that, if elected, she resisted tax increases.
Still, Jager said it’s becoming increasingly clear the vote is as much about political style as substance. He said it’s going to be important for local Republicans to decide if they want to see more of what they saw under Trump, which he described as divisiveness.
“The image that created for the world was truly disgraceful,” Jager said.