OTHELLO, Adams County — A rare open U.S. House seat in Central Washington has exposed deep divisions within the GOP, with Main Street Republicans pitted against archconservative candidates in the run-up to the Aug. 5 primary.
A crowded field of candidates is seeking to replace retiring Republican Rep. Doc Hastings. The 4th District, which includes Yakima and the Tri-Cities, hasn’t elected a Democrat since 1992, and Hastings generally cruised to victory since winning the seat in 1994.
Intraparty divisions were kept mostly under wraps during a recent candidate forum in Othello. With no Democrats at the forum, the GOP candidates took turns seeing who could love guns more, President Obama less and the federal government least of all.
“We are on the verge of losing our republic,” said Clint Didier, a former NFL star and now an Eltopia, Franklin County, farmer and tea-party candidate. “The greatest threat to the American dream is the size and scope of the federal government.”
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Othello, a farming community of 7,000 people with major gang and crime problems, is located in the irrigated farmlands of the Columbia Basin, about 100 miles west of Spokane.
Washington has a top-two primary system, meaning that the top two vote-getters regardless of party affiliation advance to the general election.
With Adams County tilting heavily to the GOP, Democratic candidates Estakio Beltran and Tony Sandoval didn’t show up. Independent Josh Ramirez and Republican Lowell Peck were also absent.
But nine candidates — eight Republicans and an independent — were on hand.
They answered questions about gun control, the Affordable Care Act, illegal immigration, the Department of Veterans Affairs and whether the U.S. Constitution remains a viable document. There were suggestions from some candidates that Obama should be impeached and imprisoned.
The district covers one of the nation’s major fruit and vegetable baskets, growing much of the U.S. supply of apples, cherries, grapes and hops to flavor beer. It is also home to the giant Hanford nuclear reservation, a federal installation that contains the nation’s largest volume of nuclear waste and is engaged in a multibillion-dollar cleanup.
Agriculture and Hanford pose challenges for the GOP candidates. Agriculture requires tens of thousands of migrant farmworkers, many from Mexico, to work the crops. Hanford, meanwhile, costs taxpayers $2 billion per year in environmental-cleanup costs.
The presumed front-runners in the GOP primary include Dan Newhouse, a former state legislator and director of the state Department of Agriculture. A farmer from the Sunnyside, Yakima County, area, Newhouse comes from the Main Street branch of the GOP.
“I learned a lot of life’s lessons on a farm,” Newhouse said. He railed against the national debt and the failures of the Affordable Care Act. But he also noted the nation needed to protect its natural resources and to secure the border while admitting thousands of migrant farmworkers each year, and said he supported some background checks for gun ownership.
Another presumed front-runner is state Sen. Janéa Holmquist, R-Moses Lake, who highlighted her legislative experience.
“I would be blessed to be your warrior in Congress,” Holmquist told the crowd of about 100 people.
She promised to vote against tax increases, to repeal the health-care act and work to reduce the federal debt.
Didier has plenty of name recognition, thanks to previous statewide campaigns and his NFL career, which included two trips to the Super Bowl. He veered to the right of Newhouse and Holmquist.
With an open seat at stake, money is pouring in. Newhouse has raised the most at $358,000, as of the June 30 reporting deadline. Tri-Cities attorney George Cicotte had raised $220,000, including $155,000 of his own funds. Didier had raised $219,000 and Holmquist $171,000, Federal Election Commission filings showed.
At the forum, Cicotte promoted a detailed contract with Eastern Washington. A father of seven children, he criticized the president for failed leadership.
“He disregards the Constitution at every step,” Cicotte said.
Republican Gavin Seim, of Ephrata, described himself as a “Constitution-loving Christian” who hands out copies of the Constitution and believes the federal government is out of control. He said Congress is made up of “legislative eunuchs” who must be replaced.
Kevin Midbust, a 27-year-old retail worker from Richland, lost his focus during his three-minute opening statement.
“What was I going to say?” he asked the crowd. But he recovered to say he had a single-issue platform in which repealing the Federal Reserve would solve all the nation’s problems. He demonstrated his commitment by tearing a $100 bill into tiny pieces and handing them out to the audience.
“Does anybody have any tape?” moderator Wade Farris asked.
Republican Glenn Stockwell of Adams County asked voters to give him a two-year trial in which he would either find the money to complete the entire Columbia Basin federal irrigation project or be booted from office.
Republican Gordon Pross of Ellensburg was making his eighth appearance on a federal ballot in Washington, and railed against taxes.
Independent candidate Richard Wright is a retired physical-therapy company owner from the Tri-Cities who highlighted his travel to 47 countries.
Among Democrats, Beltran, 30, a former congressional staffer, has picked up most of the Democratic endorsements in the district. He is challenged by Sandoval of Yakima, a longtime Democratic activist.
At the Othello forum, the first question asked how the candidates would ensure there were enough workers to pick the region’s abundant crops.
Didier, Holmquist and Newhouse all called for some sort of guest-worker visa program, while keeping out immigrants who are in the country illegally. Didier would withhold 25 percent of worker pay until they returned home, and proposed having the U.S. military train along the southern border to deter border crossers.
Didier also said he would seek to transfer federal lands in Washington to state control and to reduce the number of federal agencies.
Newhouse and Holmquist said they would work to repeal the Affordable Care Act and replace it with some other health plan. Didier would “repeal, repeal, repeal and not replace.”
Asked if they would vote to retain John Boehner as speaker of the House, Didier said he would not because the House has not been aggressive enough in investigating things such the attack in Benghazi, Libya, and the Internal Revenue Service. Newhouse said he would have to evaluate the candidates for speaker before choosing,but he would favor a candidate who could work with Democrats.
“We need to reach across the aisle,” Newhouse added. “Our country needs it.”
A question about where the candidates stood on gun control generated laughter from the audience, apparently a sign that gun control was not considered a serious option.
Newhouse and Holmquist highlighted their high ratings from the National Rifle Association. Didier complained that returning war veterans who are diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder are being denied gun permits.
“That is wrong,” Didier said.
Seim criticized people who want to deny guns to people with mental problems.
“Who is to decide who is mentally ill?” Seim said.