CHELAN — In a hilltop apple orchard high above Lake Chelan on a still October day, fruit grower Jim Colbert stood amid his acreage of SugarBee apples and talked about what it’s like to be politically yoked to the suburbs of King and Pierce counties.
Thanks to the 8th Congressional District, it’s been his reality for nearly a decade. He’s a Trump voter, once and likely again, despite deep misgivings about the president’s demeanor. And because Colbert is in the fruit business, having his voice heard on federal policies — immigration, water, trade and agriculture regulations — is a daily concern.
“Being in this kind of district, you have to take the opportunity to educate people,” said Colbert. “I have friends that want us to be in a new state. I don’t agree with that, but I understand what motivates them to say it.”
Washington’s political fault lines are readily apparent traveling the 8th Congressional District. Stretching from bustling suburban Issaquah to the quiet orchards of Chelan, the congressional district all but oozes red and blue. Perhaps more than any other congressional district in the state, the 8th illustrates the stark divide between Eastern and Western Washington voters, especially so in the last four years.
“I’m not wild about being looped in with west side voters,” Colbert said. “Their issues are not my issues.”
The two candidates vying to represent Colbert and his rural neighbors live on the other side of the Cascades and about 45 miles from each other. Two years ago, incumbent Democrat Rep. Kim Schrier of Sammamish, a doctor, pulled the once-unlikely feat of wresting the 8th District away from Republicans. Her challenger, Republican Jesse Jensen of Bonney Lake, is a business executive and first-time candidate — as Schrier was.
One of these two white-collar westsiders will end up representing 7,000-plus square miles of largely rural areas. The district has emerged in recent years as a prized battleground for both major parties because the partisan split in Congress is statistically close — even if growing polarization is pushing ideologies farther apart. For each party, the 8th offers a chance to take the other’s perceived territory.
A decade ago, the district was entirely on the west side of the mountains. Former King County Sheriff Dave Reichert, a Republican, won and narrowly held the seat. Then in 2012, redistricting stretched the boundaries over Snoqualmie Pass, adding in reliably conservative Chelan and Kittitas counties, plus a sliver of Douglas County. Before redistricting, Reichert won the district four times, averaging 51.9% of votes. His three victories after redistricting averaged 61.1%.
After Reichert retired, Schrier eked out a narrow, well-funded win in 2018 with Democrats highly motivated to flip control of the House. Her Republican opponent then was frequent candidate Dino Rossi. Jensen, Schrier’s new challenger, has a strong résumé from the Army and corporate work, and aligns himself tightly with Trump, which plays well in the Eastern Washington ag lands, but not so much in King County.
Echoing a common sentiment in his community, Colbert says, “The far left scares me way more than the right.
“I pay enough taxes, and I support enough people that aren’t working.”
State statistics say outdoor jobs, including agriculture, comprise about a quarter of Chelan County jobs. Schrier industriously educated herself on farm needs by crisscrossing the district for dozens of meetings and community events. But expectations are high.
“The incumbent [Schrier] did a pretty good job of campaigning over here on Eastern Washington issues,” said Anne Pflug, a former Bothell city manager who moved to Ellensburg to teach political science at Central Washington University. “That probably allowed her to get some votes in Kittitas and Chelan counties that have traditionally been very Republican.”
It’s fair to view the 8th as a proving ground for both parties. If Schrier convinces some farmers she cares about more than her Puget Sound base, reelection is a likelier bet. The trick she faces is keeping the margin of defeat down in deeply red areas of her district.
“Any savvy politician that’s running for office in Chelan County knows that if you put the word Democrat behind your name, it’s gonna be a tough time sleddin’,” said Skip Moore, the county’s voluble auditor and a Republican.
Chelan County government consists of almost all Republicans and one no-party-preference commissioner who won office by 500 votes. Schrier lost the county by 9% in 2018. Moore predicted a wider margin this year.
“Those Republicans who at one point were willing to vote a different way, I think with the change of the environment today, they may be coming back to the party,” he said. “That’s just a feeling.”
Neighboring Kittitas County’s government has just one elected Democrat, Auditor Jerry Pettit.
Schrier won several Kittitas areas in 2018, but lost the whole county by 1,758 votes. Pettit said issues come down to “water, water, water” for agricultural areas, but Ellensburg has grown and has “probably the most liberal city government we’ve ever had.”
He said a decade of growth altered the political landscape.
“The farmers and ranchers are very heavily Republican, but as you get into the upper county, it’s a little more interesting because so many people have moved over here from the west side,” he said. “It can be kind of a wash, one versus the other.”
The bigger constituency is on the west side. But polarization is ongoing there too. Consider what’s happening to state Sen. Mark Mullet of Issaquah, a moderate Democrat who is in the battle of his political career — challenged by a more liberal Democrat. But the 8th Congressional District also overlaps the legislative district directly to Mullet’s south, which straddles King and Pierce counties. Deeply conservative Republican Phil Fortunato won its state Senate seat handily in 2018.
“It feels to me the district has gotten a little more polarized,” Mullet said. “The Eastern Washington half in particular has moved a little farther to the right.”
Mullet said Schrier’s 2018 win was “a Trump phenomenon” of suburban frustration. Mullet said a local poll that year showed Trump’s unfavorability 30 points higher than his favorability.
The August primary numbers suggest the 8th District could prove to be a tight race. Schrier got just 43% of the votes. Combined, the Republican candidates got a greater total share than the Democrats. But that closeness might be a mirage.
The nonpartisan Cook Political Report shades the 2020 race as “Likely Democratic,” the bluest category assigned to 91 competitive congressional races. Jensen has raised $570,000 to Schrier’s $4.8 million. And more than 57% of the district’s registered voters live in King County, the bluest part of the 8th map.
A win by Schrier would help bolster Democrats’ hold on the House, but a win by Jensen would signal that the 8th is more purple than most observers realize.
Schrier might have been able to survive by simply counting on suburban Democrats. But the long play, for this and future elections, was to learn the gravel roads, listen to the farmers and make a habit of crossing the passes.
Colbert said he’s been impressed by her effort but remains undecided. So did Brian Cortese, a timothy hay grower with about 500 acres of family farm south of Ellensburg.
Asked about politics, Cortese brought up water, then international trade. Most of Washington’s hay goes overseas, as does the bulk of the apple crop.
Cortese sells to Japan and Korea, and other Asian locales, through a collective. His dog Cooper scampered at his feet as he said he’d decide close to election day about Congress, and in the presidential race — “especially after watching that (first) debate,” he said.
“My biggest concern right now is getting the crops up, and figuring out the details from there,” he said.