Republican U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler made her rounds through a packed room at Warehouse 23 in late May. She was the guest speaker at the Rotary Club of Vancouver. Her handlers had her on a tight schedule between campaign events and meetings with constituents before she hopped back on a plane to Washington, D.C.
“I’m not going to lie,” she said. “I'm the oldest 39-year-old you'll ever meet.”
Herrera Beutler is seeking her fifth term in Congress. She flipped southwest Washington’s 3rd Congressional District seat back in 2010, and is only the second Republican to represent the region in almost 60 years.
“I was representing basically my hometown,” said Herrera Beutler, who was raised in rural Brush Prairie after her family moved to Washington from Los Angeles.
“I grew up across the street from a chicken manure farm,” she said with a laugh. The congresswoman now lives in Battle Ground with her husband, Dan, and two young kids, Abigail and Ethan. “My family didn't come from wealth or privilege and here I am representing this area in Congress.”
Growing up in southwest Washington is a big part of Herrera Beutler’s story. At candidate forums, she introduces herself as someone who understands rural Clark County. She played basketball at Prairie High School, showed her horse at the county fair and spent weekends fishing with her family at Battle Ground Lake.
That hometown girl image has helped Herrera Beutler get elected in this district four times. And often by wide margins. In her last two elections, she beat her Democratic challengers with more than 60 percent of the vote.
But 2018 is not a normal year for Republicans. And in Washington state, Herrera Beutler is facing her first real challenge since she got elected. The 3rd District is gaining national attention after a strong August showing from Democrat Carolyn Long, who gained 35 percent of the vote while Herrera Beutler captured 42 percent, in the state's top-two primary system.
The latest campaign filings show the race is also attracting a lot of money. The October quarterly report revealed Long is out-raising Herrera Beutler by nearly $1.2 million.
Long has also picked up national endorsements from Democratic groups like Emily's List and is listed by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee as one of the candidates who could flip the U.S. House. Long has also received an endorsement from former President Barack Obama. And in a reversal from past elections, the editorial board at the local Vancouver newspaper, The Columbian, announced they're backing Long.
On a recent Friday afternoon, Long drove 45 minutes east of Vancouver to Stevenson, Washington, a small town in Skamania County. The former timber town now relies on tourism to the Columbia River Gorge.
Before a scheduled town hall at the library, the first-time candidate met with Skamania County prosecuting attorney Adam Kick over iced tea. Kick went over a range of issues facing the region: from the area’s changing economy to opioid addiction and the challenges of funding opportunities for rural areas.
Long moved to Vancouver from Salem, Oregon, only recently. But she’s worked for more than two decades as a political science professor at Washington State University’s Vancouver campus. In 2014, she started the initiative for public deliberation — a course on political civility in an era of partisan divide — where trained students facilitate community conversations on everything from homelessness to opioids.
“I think I bring a unique set of skills with my emphasis on bipartisanship and cooperation,” Long told OPB. “I’ll be a first-termer (if elected), but I won’t act like one.”
Long grew up in the coastal town of Brookings, Oregon, and spent her youth helping out at her father’s produce stand.
“I grew up in a rural community, so I really feel an affinity to people who choose to live in very small communities,” Long said.
The pit stop in Stevenson was one of dozens across the district Long has made since she announced her run for Congress Nov. 30, 2017. So far, she has held 45 town halls, many with standing room only crowds, even in areas that have traditionally voted Republican.
“We probably had more than 100 people show up,” said Carol Brock, chair of the Lewis County Democrats, referring to a September town hall at the Veterans Memorial Museum. She said the last time Chehalis, Washington, drew that kind of crowd was when the museum hosted the last World War II survivor of the USS Indianapolis.
“This is not exactly a bastion of Democrats out here,” Brock said. The county went for Trump by more than 30 points in 2016. But, she added, Long brings a fresh face that is gathering excitement for local Democrats — and even some independents and moderates.
“I’ve heard from people that have always voted for (Herrera Beutler), have always been a Republican. And this time, they’re saying, 'I'm behind Long,'” she said.
Long's campaign is quick to point out that her opponent hasn't held a town hall in person since Jan. 17, 2017. Instead, Herrera Beutler has relied on telephone meetings where questions are screened in advance. The congresswoman argues that approach allows her to reach more people than in-person events, but Long doesn't buy that.
“I cannot see how somebody can represent if they aren’t listening to those they’re supposed to represent,” Long said.
Brian Baird, the last Democrat to represent the 3rd District, agrees. He said he commonly hears the question, “Where’s Jamie?”
Baird stepped down after 12 years as a congressman, vacating the seat that ended up flipping for Herrera Beutler. He said Long is the best challenger the Democrats have ever put up against Herrera Beutler.
“People in the 3rd District are independent-minded,” Baird said. “They want to vote for a person who will listen to them, who will work hard for them, who will tell the truth and do things that are not always easy.”
The district is not the same one Baird represented. After Herrera Beutler was elected, the 3rd was redrawn. New borders cut out progressive Olympia and stretch from the fishing towns of Pacific County to cattle ranchland out east in Goldendale. In 2016, the district went to Trump with just under 50 percent of the vote.
The region recently has been a safe bet for Republicans, but things changed after the primary. The Cook Political Report changed its prediction of the race from "likely Republican" to "leans Republican."
A recent independent poll by The New York Times found Herrera Beutler with a modest lead over Long. After speaking with 497 callers, the poll found Herrera Beutler leading 48–41 percent among potential voters, with a 4.6 percent margin of error. Earlier this month, the Long campaign released an internal poll by Lake Research Partners showing Long leading Herrera Beutler by a 2-point margin, 45–43 percent, which was within the poll's margin of error.
“The change in the nature of the district is what really gave Jaime her victory when she ran the first time,” said Betty Sue Morris, a Democrat who represented Clark County in the state Legislature and locally as a county commissioner for 20 years. Back when she was on the Clark County Board of Commissioners, Morris selected Herrera Beutler for a vacant state House seat in the 18th Legislative District in 2007.
“I actually like Jaime quite a bit,” Morris said. “She was articulate, poised and I thought she would do a good job.”
But since being elected into Congress, Morris thinks Herrera Beutler has stayed at a distance, and has not spent a lot of time with her constituents.
“I think people don’t feel like they know her. And this is the time for her to let them get to know her,” she said. “But she isn’t.”
On The Issues
Both Herrera Beutler and Long have been working hard since the primary to get their message out to voters. In September, the candidates packed a large room for a lively debate in Woodland that was filled to capacity. It was one of the only opportunities for voters to see Herrera Beutler and Long side-by-side.
The debate grew heated at times, with the moderator repeatedly scolding the boisterous crowd for clapping and making comments. One person was even cut off for taking too long to ask a question.
Herrera Beutler has pounced on Long’s recent arrival in the district, saying the Democrat relocated just to see if she could win the race.
“She’s waiting to see whether or not she wins this political election before she chooses to live among us,” Herrera Beutler said. “You cannot call into question my record and my presence in my community.”
Herrera Beutler has also been on the offensive, with television and radio attack ads against Long that accuse her of trying to pursue a Medicare-for-all plan. Herrera Beutler’s campaign claims southwest Washingtonians would see huge increases in federal taxes and the plan would force families off private insurance.
Long denies this allegation and says she wants to look at creating a public insurance option for families in rural areas, as well as bring back the individual insurance mandate.
“I am not sure which Democrat my opponent thinks she’s running against,” Long told the crowd in Woodland.
Both candidates have made health care a priority in their campaigns — and both have a personal connection. Long’s most recent television ad discusses the loss of her mother to lung cancer at a young age. Long said her mother avoided seeing the doctor initially and feared expensive medical bills.
“It’s the No. 1 issue I’m running on,” Long said in the campaign ad.
Herrera Beutler, meanwhile, regularly talks about her daughter, Abigail, who was born without kidneys. Abigail, now 5, was the first child to survive from the rare syndrome and later received a kidney transplant from her father.
“My family is part of the health care consuming public forever,” Herrera Beutler said. “I have a personal stake in it, and getting it right means the world to me.”
The Trump Effect
But Herrera Beutler’s policies or presence in the district may not be the most significant factor in November — especially in a year with an energized Democratic Party that sees Long as a key piece of the party’s plan to take control of the House.
Because Herrera Beutler is a Republican, her biggest hurdle could be that some of her critics see her as just another rubber stamp for Trump.
“Politics have become extremely divisive,” said Republican Joe Zorelli, a former Washington state senator from Ridgefield. “There's an offset against the current president of the United States. And so anybody in in that same party, the Republican Party, has an extra weight to carry, whether it's fair or not.”
That makes this a complicated race for Herrera Beutler, who describes herself as a moderate with an independent streak.
Herrera Beutler likes to talk about her bipartisan legislation and her ability to work across the aisle. In an interview with OPB, she pointed to bills she worked on with Democrats in Oregon and Washington to save forestry jobs and to lethally remove sea lions that are eating threatened salmon.
“Jamie is very passionate about the people that she represents,” said U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, who hired Herrera Beutler from 2005 to 2007 as a legislative aide specializing in health care, education and veterans issues. “She always put people in her district ahead of politics or party.”
Herrera Beutler has bucked the party line at times. She wrote in Paul Ryan instead of voting for Trump in 2016. And despite several votes against the Affordable Care Act during the Obama administration, she rejected a 2017 push led by Trump to repeal and replace it.
“We promised them they are going to be better off,” Herrera Beutler said. “And that bill wasn’t going to do that.”
Camas investor David Nierenberg, a local Republican political donor, said there’s little doubt the 3rd District will be a “close race.” He and his wife have given Herrera Beutler $39,300 since 2011.
Nierenberg said he believes this election will largely be a referendum on the president, and is concerned Herrera Beutler’s seat might bear the brunt of that.
“It is a cross she has to bear being a Republican this year,” he said.
And while Nierenberg is supporting Herrera Beutler, he refused to say anything critical about Long. He described the Democrat as a strong, bright candidate who comes over to his home from time to time “to compare books” and “talk about political philosophy.”
“I think we’re fortunate to have two good possibilities for this district,” Nierenberg added.
Herrera Beutler said she expects to win, but acknowledges that will be up to the people who live in southwest Washington.
“This isn’t my seat. I’m not entitled to this seat,” Herrera Beutler said. “I get to do this every two years. I get to say, ‘Will you send me back?’”
And if voters decide not to this year, Herrera Beutler said that’s OK.
It’ll just mean she gets to go home.
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