Pedro Celis was supposed to be the anointed Republican challenger to rookie Democratic Congresswoman Suzan DelBene this fall.
Since entering the race in February, the retired Microsoft engineer had raised a respectable amount of money while touting his biography as a prominent Mexican-American candidate that GOP leaders were eager to promote as they try to improve the party’s standing with Latino voters.
But a weak primary-election showing has knocked that storyline sideways, leaving Celis at risk of failing to secure a spot on the November ballot in the 1st Congressional District.
As of Wednesday night, Celis remained in third place, trailing little-known GOP rival Robert Sutherland by 265 votes. Each had about 15 percent of the vote. DelBene led the seven-candidate field with 52 percent.
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With tens of thousands of ballots remaining to be counted, Celis very well could pass Sutherland and advance to the general election. He gained ground on Sutherland in Wednesday’s vote count.
“Today was a better day. We hope tomorrow gets better,” Celis said.
Sutherland, a retired biochemist from Granite Falls who was outspent 50 to 1 by Celis, called his showing “nothing short of a miracle.”
Even if Celis squeaks through, the narrow margin has raised questions about his viability in what was supposed to be the GOP’s best shot at taking a Washington congressional seat from Democrats this year.
Former state GOP Chairman Kirby Wilbur, who had encouraged Celis to run, said he was shocked by the primary results.
Even if Celis survives, Wilbur said he’ll have been damaged by the primary scare. “It will hurt him, but it won’t mortally wound him,” he said. “He’ll have three months to pull himself back together.”
Alex Hays, executive director of Mainstream Republicans of Washington, said the primary result was a “huge disappointment.” He called Celis a “terrific voice for the Republican Party.”
But Hays questioned the Celis campaign’s strategy of only lightly advertising in the primary while hoarding funds for the fall.
Celis spent about $188,000 before the primary, according to Federal Election Commission reports, but sat on a stash of more than $240,000. “There is no reason to save money for the general. It is not a rational decision,” Hays said.
While the Celis campaign continued to focus on the coming days of ballot counting, there was already speculation that the immigration debate roiling the Republican Party had played a role.
Conservative political commentator Michelle Malkin posted a message about the 1st District vote on her Facebook page, calling Celis an “NRCC-anointed amnesty shill.”
Celis has tried to take a middle ground on immigration.
He says he’s not for “amnesty” for undocumented workers but believes they need a path to legal status. He has publicly supported Washington state’s new law granting financial aid to college students who may have come here illegally.
An immigrant himself, Celis came to the U.S. to study computer science and eventually settled in Redmond as a Microsoft engineer,
He said immigration will continue to be a key issue in the election but wasn’t sure if he lost votes among conservatives due to his stance.
His campaign manager, Don Skillman, said “the immigration issue is extremely hot right now. I think there are questions.”
Sutherland said he attracted voters, in part, by “out-hustling” rivals via hundreds of personal contacts with voters, instead of using the usual forms of advertising. “I don’t so much as have a road sign or a yard sign,” he said.
But Sutherland added that Celis’ positions on issues from abortion to immigration were unclear and troubling to some conservative voters.
As for his own views on immigration, Sutherland said, “I’m not one of these guys who are like ‘send them all home.’ ”
But, he said he wants to know how many of the millions of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. are “gang members” or “drug-cartel members.”
“How many of them are from Hezbollah?” he added, citing a conservative anti-immigration video he linked to on his campaign website.
Sutherland has been straightforward about his other views, too. On his website, he dismisses global warming as a “scare tactic” and asks: “Folks, have you had enough of their political Bull Crap yet?”
The DelBene campaign said her strategy won’t change, no matter which Republican she faces in November.
“We’ve always been saying the crop of candidates they’ve put up are too extreme for the district,” said Viet Shelton, a campaign spokesman.
If Celis fails to advance, DelBene could have an easy ride to a second term, which Wilbur said would be a big lost opportunity for Republicans.
The 1st District, which runs from Redmond and Kirkland north to the Canadian border, was reshaped in redistricting a few years ago to be a swing district, almost evenly divided between Republican and Democratic voters.