Immediately after the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, voter registration offices across the country reported an exodus of Republican voters.
An analysis by the New York Times found that 140,000 Republicans in the 25 states with readily available voter data abandoned the party in January. In Oregon, 11,000 people de-registered with the GOP in the weeks after the Washington, D.C., siege.
The pattern is harder to track in Washington state, where voters don’t have to formally register with a political party in order to participate in open primary elections. But in the southwest corner of the state — in the closest thing Washington has to a competitive congressional district — the decisions made by moderate Republicans before the 2022 election could have huge implications.
Do they jump ship? Or do they stick around and try to effect change from the inside?
“I can imagine that there are probably going to be a significant number of Republican voters that may not feel an attachment to the party,” said Mark Stephan, an associate professor of political science at Washington State University Vancouver.
“If you’re a moderate Republican, and you were never a hardcore Trump Republican, what are you doing now? Are you trying to bring your party back toward a position that’s more in line with your position?”
Drawing a line with Herrera Beutler
When U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground, voted to impeach then-President Donald Trump, a crack between the two wings of the Republican party in Washington’s 3rd Congressional District widened into a chasm.
At least among the formal party organization, her decision was decidedly unpopular. The Clark County Republican Party voted to censure Herrera Beutler over her impeachment position on Feb. 23. Just before the vote, Chair Joel Mattila posed a question to the gathered precinct committee officers:
“In the interest of fairness, do we have any nays?”
In a video of the meeting, it appears that the precinct committee officers (PCOs) interpreted Matilla’s query as a joke, responding with laughs. When it came time to vote, they overwhelmingly supported a formal condemnation of the six-term Republican congresswoman. They also pledged to seek out a strong GOP challenger to potentially unseat Herrera Beutler in the 2022 primary.
However, the vote wasn’t unanimous. There were a handful of nays — a few voices who spoke up in the room, and six of the PCOs who were participating in the meeting virtually.
Marlene Adams, a Republican PCO representing a precinct just west of Hazel Dell, said she didn’t approve of Herrera Beutler’s conduct during the impeachment trial; the congresswoman was nearly called as a witness after offering a secondhand description of a phone call that pointed to Trump’s state of mind during the Jan. 6 Capitol attack.
Adams didn’t like what she considered “political grandstanding,” she said, but she didn’t think Herrera Beutler should be condemned, either. She also thought Trump ought to have been convicted.
“I don’t feel like coming out for or against Jaime Herrera Beutler,” Adams said in a phone call with The Columbian before the vote. “I’m not for her censorship. My support for her is there. I just wish she wouldn’t engage in this so much.”
Brent Boger, who served as chair of the Clark County Republican Party nearly a decade ago and stepped down over what he called growing extremism, said the group’s vote to censure Herrera Beutler didn’t surprise him at all.
“They’re largely Trump supporters,” Boger said. “They weren’t quite ready to give up on him.”
Whether or not he’s officially involved with the party, Boger said, he still considers himself a Republican and will continue to cast his ballot for GOP candidates. Could he ever see himself getting back involved with the formal party organization as a moderate voice?
“There would be a place for me. I would definitely be a minority,” Boger said. “It would be hard. I reluctantly voted for Trump, so it’s not like I’m going to become a Democrat — that’s never going to happen.”
Moderates seeking a home
Outside the formal party organization, some ordinary Republican voters who don’t feel any allegiance to Trump found themselves without a real political home for the past few years. Among that group, Herrera Beutler’s stance on impeachment was admirable, and potentially an invitation back to the fold.
A Vancouver man who asked to remain anonymous — to avoid what he called the “wackadoodles” — had been voting Republican for his entire adult life. That changed in 2016.
“Free trade, open economic policy, small government, none of that is the Republican party anymore,” he said. “If they stay on the path they’re on, I don’t see myself going back.”
He also voted against Herrera Beutler for the first time last year because he was fed up with the party as a whole, he said. He might go back to supporting the congresswoman in the future after her impeachment vote.
He doesn’t consider himself a Republican anymore, but he’s not a Democrat or a third-party voter either.
“(I’m) a mix-and-match independent. I’m going to look more at character and moderate policy perspectives than I will at rhetoric or extremism on either side,” he said.
While the national trends would indicate that there are more voters experiencing the same kind of drift away from their voting history, there’s not a very reliable way to track how many of those people are in Southwest Washington.
According to Stephan, a public opinion survey funded by one of the parties could help indicate where voters end up settling after a volatile political era. But the 2022 primaries will be the first real test.
“I’m not a betting man when it comes to what people say they’re going to do,” Stephan said. “I tend to be much more focused on their behaviors than what they say.”