Primary Result Shines Spotlight on Another House Leader's Reelection

Cathy McMorris Rodgers faces a competitive challenge from Democrat Lisa Brown.

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers during a July 4 parade in Johnson, Wash.
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Drew Gerber
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Drew Gerber
Aug. 9, 2018, 8 p.m.

Eastern Washington’s tight primary Tuesday provided a peek into the vulnerability of yet another member of congressional leadership, echoing a recent Democratic contest on the other side of the country and one in this same Spokane-based district more than two decades ago.

Democrat Lisa Brown, a former state Senate majority leader and university chancellor, is nipping at the heels of House GOP Conference Chairwoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers in the 5th District after finishing election night just a point behind.

But in a district that President Trump carried by 13 points, Republicans are skeptical that the voter frustration with the president and his GOP allies in Congress that would be necessary to unseat the seven-term incumbent will materialize.

The summer primaries kicked off with the downfall of McMorris Rodgers’s Democratic counterpart, Rep. Joe Crowley of New York, at the hands of progressive challenger Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Meanwhile, back in the 5th District, some are looking back to Speaker Tom Foley’s defeat in 1994, ending a 30-year incumbency in Bill Clinton’s first midterm.

As the fourth-ranking House Republican, many are also quick to highlight that McMorris Rodgers hasn’t faced a competitive race for over a decade, though she did hold her seat as a freshman with 56 percent of the vote amid the 2006 Democratic wave.

In an interview, Brown said the biggest concern among voters is the high cost of health care, though it’s now joined by concerns over tariffs. Not only did she find people frustrated that a long-promised GOP fix never appeared, but there is a growing sense that no health care fix will come until this Congress is voted out, she said. And as she is one of the most avid adherents to party talking points, few voters think that McMorris Rodgers will seriously stand up for them on tariffs, Brown said.

For Brown, voters see few rewards from McMorris Rodgers’s long stay in D.C., which Brown argues has tainted her opponent’s ability to lead for the district rather than merely following her party.

“People here are very sensitive to the idea that after 14 years it is time to give somebody else a shot at making a difference for eastern Washington. They certainly have shown that in the past,” said Brown, noting that as a state representative she was one of the few Democrats in eastern Washington to hold her seat in 1994’s Republican sweep.

With the majority of remaining votes still uncounted from Tuesday’s mail-in top-two primary coming from the populous Spokane County, where Brown currently holds a six-point lead, McMorris Rodgers led Brown on Thursday evening by an unimpressive 1,435 votes. In 2016 she pulled just 41 percent of the primary vote but received 60 percent of the general-election vote after outspending her Democratic opponent by 10-to-1.

While McMorris Rodgers can likely expect to pick up a majority of the votes that went to the three other GOP-aligned candidates Tuesday—including two who ran to the congresswoman’s right and pushed her on her supposed lack of loyalty to Trump—the close margin provided a momentum boost for Democrats.

“Lisa's strong performance in the primary, nearly equaling McMorris Rodgers's performance, underlines this race as a top-tier opportunity for Democrats,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman Drew Godinich said in a statement.

However, Republican sources pointed out that internal polling shows few voters remain undecided, and that Trump’s approval rating in the district has stayed above water even as retaliatory tariffs hammer agriculture business there, leaving Brown with little room to cobble together the votes needed to beat Republicans’ raw primary vote of around 53 percent.

Brown’s performance in the primary is likely a high-water mark for her campaign, one Republican close to the race said, as the GOP saw a strong edge among the ballots going into primary night. This suggests that Brown’s percentage of the vote will shrink as remaining votes are counted. With her strong well of resources—Brown and McMorris Rodgers gathered comparable fundraising hauls in the second quarter—it’s possible that the Democrat could capture a marginally larger vote percentage in November, they admitted.

On the other hand, another Republican watching the race noted that McMorris Rodgers gained 10 points on her 2016 opponent, Joe Pakootas, between the primary and general elections. Pakootas, who took 40 percent of the vote, ran on a familiar platform of affordable health care and opposition to special interests, faced a significant fundraising disadvantage, and campaigned largely in the district’s rural parts.

Comparing this year to 2016 as a benchmark, or really to any of the congresswoman’s elections, hardly makes sense, argued one Democrat familiar with both campaigns, noting that McMorris Rodgers's decision to run severely negative attack ads since May proves that she feels threatened. In a conversation prior to polls closing Tuesday, the Democrat added that there might be little to glean from the primary results, noting that the GOP vote share would likely be around 50 percent and that polling continues to suggest that November will be tight.

Brown, as well as several local media outlets, condemned the ads as not only false but inappropriate, and hazarded that they likely backfired among primary voters. The Republican source close to the race said the ads have done their job defining Brown. When the ads rolled out, the source said 60 percent of voters were unfamiliar with Brown, but since then they’ve seen sizable growth in the Democrat’s unfavorable ratings.

The ads so grossly mischaracterize her record, Brown said, that she believes her expansive field operation will do much more to convince voters that McMorris Rodgers needs to go.

“Nevertheless, I expect there will be negative ads every week from now until November,” Brown said, laughing. “The Paul Ryan super PAC has an office here, and I assume it will just be relentless.”

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