In August, an auto body shop owner named Marie Gluesenkamp Perez won a Democratic House primary in rural southern Washington. At the time, no one gave her much of a chance to win the seat. Washington’s Third Congressional District twice went for Donald Trump. A Republican had held the seat for more than a decade. FiveThirtyEight gave Gluesenkamp Perez a 2 percent chance of victory. The national party got the message and sent its money to other races.

Then, in the biggest upset of the 2022 midterms. Gluesenkamp Perez, 34, defeated Joe Kent, a Trump-endorsed retired Green Beret, who beat the incumbent Republican in the GOP primary.

Without party support, Gluesenkamp Perez built a different kind of Democratic campaign. She talked candidly about the decline of the timber industry and the loss of manufacturing jobs, while promoting right-to-repair legislation, which would give people the tools and legal authority to repair everything from cell phones to John Deere tractors to medical equipment. Right-to-repair is an especially important issue in rural areas, where repairing heavy machinery can be banned by manufacturers.

Gluesenkamp Perez took this message all across her mostly rural district. Her team of 500 volunteers knocked on over 40,000 doors, according to Slate, bringing her message to people not predisposed to support her party. In campaign ads, Gluesenkamp Perez often appeared in her mechanic’s jumpsuit and criticized the Democratic Party elite for losing touch with the working class. “I’m not your typical candidate,” she said in one TV spot.

Gluesenkamp Perez’s opponent may have helped make this case for her. Kent promotes the conspiracy that the 2020 election was stolen, paid more than $10,000 in consulting fees to a member of the Proud Boys, and held a campaign phone call with the white supremacist Nick Fuentes. He also questioned the masculinity of men who enjoy professional sports, a new right-wing fixation that seems unlikely to catch on among everyday Americans.

But even if Kent offered a useful contrast, Gluesenkamp Perez did not run as a centrist. She put abortion access at the center of her campaign, often telling the story of her own miscarriage. She also pledged not to support Nancy Pelosi as House caucus leader and talked openly about the guns she owns.

The Democratic Party’s collapse in rural areas ought to be obvious to all at this point. In the 2020 presidential election, Trump won 65 percent of rural voters. Gluesenkamp Perez says that Democrats can do better in rural areas—especially if Democratic leadership learns from her unexpected success.

—Nick Bowlin

Nick Bowlin: It’s common to hear that Democrats need to run as centrists to win rural areas. And it seems to me that you did things differently. You took strong progressive positions, but really honed in on a few that really matter to people in southern Washington. Does that seem right?

Marie Gluesenkamp Perez: Yes, I would say that is an astute assessment. My campaign was a reflection of my district, that’s why I was successful. Because that’s what matters, not any party dogma or particular label.

NB: It’s my understanding that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee [the party’s arm for House races] didn’t spend on your behalf, is that right? How did you pull off the win with minimal party support?

MGP: The DCCC never put in any money. Near the very end, I believe the House Majority PAC did come in [The House Democratic caucus’s main Super PAC spent $300,000 on her behalf in the final week]. I listen to my friends at home. I found allies. I found neighbors. I built a coalition. And I really got to stay focused on what matters to my district.

It was very frustrating to never be taken seriously by many in the party establishment. But it’s also not surprising, because people like me who work in the trades are used to being treated like we’re dumb.

NB: Do you think that perception explains why it took so long for them to even consider you as a viable candidate?

MGP: Yes, I do. I don’t think they think that, but when I went to a meeting with the DCCC after I won, I asked, “How many of your candidates don’t have graduate degrees? How many didn’t go to college? How many work in the trades?” And they said, “I don’t know.” Well, maybe you should know. Maybe that should be important to you, because it’s important to many, many Americans.

They really need to reassess what they think makes a qualified candidate. I’m not special. There are a lot of people like me, who really can serve our districts who understand them deeply. We have got to do a better job of recruiting those folks to run if we want to be relevant in rural places.

NB: During the campaign, you talked a lot about the economic pressures that you and your family were under. Can you talk more about that?

MGP: Neither my husband nor I have health insurance, and, frankly, I went through most of my pregnancy without it. In my county, Skamania County, there’s only one health care service provider. There’s one plan for you, and it’s not a great one. Your options are pretty limited. Trying to find child care has been a nightmare. I’m on waitlists all over. There’s just a real shortage of the things that make life work.

NB: I’m glad you brought up health care monopolies in rural areas. When we talk about corporate consolidation and power in the US, these conversations can leave out the specific ways these issues impact rural economies. On the campaign trail, you talked a lot about right-to-repair and other monopoly issues. Can you say more about this?

MGP: Right-to-repair is honestly one of the biggest reasons that I ran for Congress. Democrats love to talk about how they support the trades or being pro-labor. I think this is this is a crisis for the middle class, and it’s a crisis for the trades. Supporting the trades means ensuring that there are things to fix. That’s also part of being an environmentalist, ensuring that we have things to fix, that things are made to last and we don’t dispose of them. And it’s about cars and tractors, but also electronic waste. This is about home medical equipment. It’s this creeping, metastasizing problem, and it’s taking away a fundamentally American part of our identity. DIY is in our DNA. And I really believe that we’re being turned into a permanent class of renters who don’t really own their stuff.

NB: What do you intend to do in Congress to address this?

MGP: I’m going to pass a right-to-repair bill. I’m talking to everybody I can about it. It’s about being able to fix and maintain your own stuff. It’s about making things last. For my business, I need there to be a used-car market. I need people to be able to fix their own cars, and meanwhile, BMW is taking the dipstick out a lot of their new cars. There are subscription services for your seat heaters to work! And it sounds silly—is that really a big problem? It’s going to be if we don’t get out ahead of this.

NB: Another thing you talked about on the campaign trail was public safety. I saw that Portland broke its annual murder record recently, but nationally, there’s no evidence that crime is up overall [Portland, Ore., is just outside of Gluensenkamp Perez’s district]. But there’s also the fact that national media mentions of crime skyrocketed during the midterms. So can you talk about public safety in a way that addresses the realities but doesn’t feed into fearmongering?

MGP: Even if a lot of the crime statistics haven’t gone up, it feels really bad to a lot of us. I think this is something Democrats can get wrong. We like to talk about the facts and the statistics—and not address the feelings. I had a car stolen the night before I flew out to DC. Luckily, we recovered it, but it just sucks. And so I think we need to meet people where they’re at and acknowledge that a lot of people don’t feel safe.

NB: Can you do that without kind of promoting some of the worst aspects of American policing?

MGP: Yeah, there’s a way to do it that brings back a sense of community. That’s the solution to the safety concerns, when you know your neighbors, when people have ownership in their communities, when small businesses are thriving, and there’s accountability.

NB: You campaigned hard on abortion access and child care costs, both issues that have a tendency to be framed as liberal. In your experience, did you find that leaning hard on these issues helped your cross-partisan appeal?

MGP: It’s so annoying that child care gets talked about as a woman’s issue. They only ever ask moms to talk to about it. But I believe it’s a big driver of our workforce shortage. One in 10 child care facilities has permanently shut down since 2019. That’s is a problem for our economy. And so I think framing it in that way—making it relevant to all of us, not just to people with kids under 5—makes sense to people, regardless of what party you’re affiliated. It makes sense to people that it should be a priority, for good governance and for an economy that works for everybody.

NB: What does the party not get about rural areas?

MGP: They’re always trying to explain stuff to us, and they don’t listen to us. They try and tell us what’s going to solve our problems, instead of hearing us when we tell them what our problems are. It feels patronizing a lot of the time. My mechanics know a lot. They know things that other people don’t know. Actually respect us and don’t use us like mascots. I think a lot of a lot of Democrats would like to have sort of a blue-collar pet. I see it, and it’s pretty obnoxious.

Correction: A previous version of this article misidentified Republican Congressional candidate Joe Kent’s position in the US military.