Can These Women Flip Red Districts in the Pacific Northwest?

Can These Women Flip Red Districts in the Pacific Northwest?

Can These Women Flip Red Districts in the Pacific Northwest?

Washington’s Third Congressional District was considered safe territory for its Republican incumbent. Then Carolyn Long showed up.

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Carolyn Long knows how to work a parade. Start from the back, move towards the front. Make eye contact, shake hands, and ask each person for their vote. For a Democrat trying to unseat a three-term Republican incumbent in a congressional district in the West, parades are very important.

There’s one parade in particular that Long, a political-science professor, likes to talk about on the campaign trail: The Loggers Jubilee in Morton, a timber town in southwestern Washington State where Donald Trump won 66 percent of the vote. In August, Long was there, shaking hands and keeping an eye out for her opponent. It began to rain—not a sprinkle, Long emphasizes, but a downpour. “I looked like a drowned rat,” she recalled recently. It was then that she saw Jamie Hererra Beutler, the incumbent, waving from atop a horse and looking remarkably dry. Long was furious. “We’ve lost the parade,” she thought. “We’ve lost the election.”

A few months later, Long uses the anecdote to draw what she describes as a defining contrast between herself and her opponent: While Beutler is “up her high horse,” Long is down with the rest of the people, hustling for votes. Since announcing what many considered a long-shot bid to flip Washington’s Third Congressional District last year, Long has held 45 town-hall events throughout the district, which stretches across southern Washington from the Pacific Coast up the Columbia River gorge to the midline of the state. Attendance ranged from just over a dozen in the tiny town of Lyle to more than 200 in the city of Vancouver. Beutler, Long often points out, hasn’t held a town-hall gathering in the district since January of 2017, preferring instead to hold telephone meetings, and she declined to debate. Long is betting that her aggressive outreach to voters, plus a national upwelling of grassroots Democratic activism, can carry her to victory.

The third is one of three Republican-held districts in Washington that Democrats are hoping to flip on Tuesday in their bid to retake the House. All three of the Democratic candidates are women. In Washington’s eighth district, which encompasses the eastern suburbs of Seattle and rural communities across the Cascade mountains, pediatrician Kim Schreier is running against Republican former state senator Dino Rossi for an open seat in what has become one of the most expensive congressional races in the country. In the fifth district, which covers the sparsely populated eastern part of the state, former state senator and university chancellor Lisa Brown is challenging House Republican conference chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers.

Long, who comes across as intensely focused and has a wry sense of humor, is running as a moderate consensus builder on a battleground that until this summer was considered safe Republican territory. Beutler rode the Tea Party wave to victory over a long-time Democratic congressman in 2010 and has easily trounced challengers from the left since then. Redrawn in 2012 to exclude the blue city of Olympia, the district itself has become more conservative; Donald Trump won there by more than seven points. But after Long posted an unexpectedly strong showing in August’s jungle primary, the district looked suddenly competitive. Since then Long has built a significant war chest with support from both small donors and national groups like Emily’s List and MoveOn. She’s been endorsed by a number of labor unions and Barack Obama, as well as some influential former Beutler supporters, including the editorial board of The Columbian in Vancouver.

Beutler, too, has plenty of money, and most polls put her several points ahead. But what Beutler doesn’t have is a grassroots army of volunteers galvanized by Trump’s election. Local chapters of Indivisible and other new groups have mobilized crowds to campaign for Long, as has Swing Left, a group formed to direct volunteers and money to swing districts. “The energy in this race comes from those people who started immediately organizing after the [2016] election,” Long told me.

On Friday morning, with four days left in the race, Long arrived in the small town of Bingen to the cheers of a dozen supporters, mostly middle-aged women. She headed out to knock on doors with a volunteer named Kirsten Dennis. In 2016, after her election-night party turned sour, Dennis invited a bunch of women back to her house to figure out what to do next. Along with another informal group assembled by one of Dennis’s friend, they created the Columbia Gorge Women’s Action Network; more than 100 women came to their first meeting, and their Facebook group now has more than 2,000 members. “We realized that a lot of people were engaged and we needed to organize,” Dennis said. At that point, she’d never canvassed or phone banked for a political candidate. Nearly two years later CGWAN has gotten three of its members elected to the City Council in White Salmon. Another member, Sasha Bentley, is running for the state House, and the group is also supporting Long.

“It took me about three minutes to realize that she is the real deal, and that she could beat Jamie Herrera Beutler,” Dennis said of Long, whom she saw for the first time at a town hall. “We’ve gone everywhere in the county. We’ve gone to Goldendale, which is redder than red…. We’re talking to everybody,” Dennis continued. “And we’ve talked to a ton of voters in Goldendale that are fed up with the Republican party.”

Long has worked hard to reach those voters. She seems ideally suited for the job: She studies political polarization and, while teaching at Washington State University, started a community “initiative for public deliberation” with her students to facilitate bipartisan dialogue. Long grew up mainly on the rural Oregon coast and is married to a Republican who voted for Trump. Long claims that until recently she wasn’t even sure she’d secured her husband’s vote.

In the town of Stevenson on Friday, Long introduced herself to diners in restaurants and shoppers in a grocery-store parking lot. She leaned into the window of a police car to shake the hand of a sheriff’s deputy and ask how he felt about gun-safety measures on the state ballot. “I’ll get you in 2020!” she said good-naturedly to a group of burly young men at a restaurant who work in the timber industry and told her they wouldn’t be voting for her. Outside on a bench sat 73-year old Frank Cox, who voted for Trump and for Beutler last time around, but said he’d already sent in his ballot, marked for Long. “I’m so old, I let change come with new people,” he explained. “Everybody is up in arms against each other.”

As Long walked down a side street, a blond woman ran out of an office building calling her name. It was Judith Lanz, an insurance agent in Stevenson who’d been active in local Republican politics until the Tea Party movement dragged the party to the right. “I got pushed out,” Lanz told me. “It’s people like me who will get Carolyn in office…. People are just so disappointed.”

Long believes the third is an “independent-minded district,” and that Beutler—who voted for the Trump tax cuts and for a harsh immigration bill this year—is out of touch with her constituents. (Beutler’s campaign did not respond to interview requests.) “It’s very much a national election,” Long told me. Health care, specifically protecting provisions of the Affordable Care Act, has been Long’s central issue. Long also brings up prescription drug prices, wage stagnation, infrastructure investment, the tax cuts, and protecting earned benefits like Social Security.

Beutler, for her part, emphasizes local issues, like her work on a bill making it easier to kill sea lions that prey on the Pacific Northwest’s imperiled salmon. She has attacked Long as a carpetbagger—though Long has taught in Vancouver for two decades, her family only recently moved there from Oregon—and as an extreme leftist who will bankrupt America by supporting Medicare for All. Before Long’s town hall in the conservative town of Goldendale, someone spread a rumor that a busload of Antifa activists was on its way.

In fact, Long says she does not currently support Medicare for All, favoring more modest reforms including adding a public option to Obamacare. “I’m a strong Democrat, but I want to fix problems,” Long said of her preference for an incremental approach to policy-making. “I’m sure there are people who are disappointed I’m not progressive enough,” she acknowledged.

One of those people was Chris Thompson, a Marine Corps veteran and founder of the group Willapa Bay Resistance, which boasts several hundred members in Pacific County, the westernmost part of the district. The group formed during the 2016 election, the first time in decades Pacific County went for a Republican presidential nominee. Since then, Willapa Bay Resistance has worked to pull the local Democratic Party to the left. Long may not be the progressive champion they’d hoped for, but Thompson said that about 50 of the group’s most active members are campaigning for her anyway. “She’s certainly better than the alternative and so our people are throwing their support behind her,” Thompson said.

Long’s chances in Pacific County may also be helped by the turmoil created by Trump’s crackdown on undocumented immigrants. The local economy there revolves around fisheries, cranberry farming, and the hospitality industry—all of which rely on immigrant labor to some extent. Shellfish farmers and canneries in particular have struggled with labor shortages, and some community members who voted for Trump have been troubled by the arrest of long-time community members.

Campaigning on Friday, Long was upbeat. “I’ve seen you on TV!” people kept exclaiming, or: “Thank you for running.” Momentum seemed to be on her side. Republican groups were playing defense with big last-minute ad buys in support of Beutler, while volunteers turned out in droves for Long’s canvassing and phone-banking shifts. On the sidelines, though, Long expressed some nervousness. She wasn’t sure how more recent national stories like the sexual-assault allegations against Brett Kavanaugh and “this whole caravan bullshit” had impacted undecided voters. “He’s so effective at exploiting fissures in our society,” Long said of Trump.

Despite Trump’s looming presence, Long has kept much of her focus on what she sees as her opponent’s own weaknesses. “I think what voters will see in my campaign is someone who really wants this job, and is doing everything she can to get this job, compared to somebody who just seems to be phoning it in,” Long said. “Hopefully I’ve shown that how I campaign is how I’m going to govern.”

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