U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler was already facing a backlash from fellow Republicans after breaking with most of her party and voting to impeach former President Donald Trump.
Then she ignited national news — and briefly scrambled the end of the Senate impeachment trial — with an explosive account of Trump’s refusal to call off Capitol rioters during a phone call with House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy.
And now, pro-Trump forces are working to make Herrera Beutler pay.
In a recent interview with the far-right news site Newsmax, former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski boasted the Trump organization will back a candidate to unseat the congresswoman, who “caused a lot of consternation lately.”
Already, three primary challengers have declared against Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground, who will be up for a seventh term in 2022. All are first-time candidates who argue she betrayed Republicans by voting to impeach Trump.
They are: Joe Kent, an Army Special Forces veteran and former CIA employee; Heidi St. John, a Christian author and homeschooling advocate; and Wadi Yakhour, who worked as chief of staff at the Selective Service System in the Trump administration.
Trump so far has not blessed any of them. But he is watching the race “very closely” and “there is a strong chance he will endorse against Herrera Beutler if a good candidate emerges,” a Trump political adviser said Friday. The adviser requested anonymity because he was not authorized to make a public statement.
Herrera Beutler declined interview requests for this article. Her campaign spokesperson, Parker Truax, said in an email the congresswoman is “focused on solving problems and improving life for Southwest Washington residents.”
With his false claims of widespread voter fraud, Trump raised tens of millions of dollars after losing the 2020 election. He reportedly will work to oust Republicans, like Herrera Beutler, who backed impeachment.
The feud reflects the broader division in the Republican Party between those who still view Trump as the party’s leader and those who want the nation’s only twice-impeached president to fade away.
A Republican anti-Trump group has pledged to spend $50 million to defend GOP impeachment supporters. And some Herrera Beutler backers argue her independent streak has strengthened her support in Southwest Washington’s 3rd Congressional District, where she was reelected last year with 56% of the vote.
David Nierenberg, a Camas investment manager and longtime Republican fundraiser, predicts Trump will have his hands full over the next two years with criminal investigations and looming debts, and that he’ll only fall further out of favor, even among Republicans.
“I think Trump’s support already has weakened, and I expect that with the passage of time it will continue to weaken,” he said.
Herrera Beutler also may benefit from Washington’s “top two” primary system, which puts every candidate on the same ballot regardless of party, said J. Miles Coleman, associate editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, the nonpartisan politics newsletter at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.
“I think it definitely plays to her advantage. I would definitely say if Washington had a closed Republican primary, that would be potentially very tough for her,” Coleman said.
Still, Republican activists and organizations have made their displeasure with Herrera Beutler clear, complicating her reelection prospects. The state Republican Party last month formally rebuked her, as well as U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Sunnyside, who also voted to impeach Trump. Last week, the Clark County Republican Party also voted overwhelmingly to censure her for the impeachment vote
State GOP Chairman Caleb Heimlich said the party normally favors its incumbents, but will for now leave endorsements in the race up to local Republican groups.
Kent: Trump not to blame for insurrection
Kent, 40, said in an interview he hadn’t planned on running for office until Herrera Beutler voted to impeach Trump, and then offered herself up as “a star witness” against him. “I’ve been a politician now for two weeks,” he said.
In voting for impeachment on Jan. 13, Herrera Beutler said Trump “incited a riot” to halt “the peaceful transfer of power from one administration to the next.” She said Trump failed to do anything meaningful to halt the Jan. 6 Capitol assault, calling his actions impeachable based on “indisputable evidence.”
But Kent, who completed 11 combat deployments over two decades, denies that Trump was to blame for the Jan. 6 insurrection. He argues Trump had “no control” over the mob, blaming poor planning by Capitol security officials for the riot that left many lawmakers cowering in their offices and five people dead.
“I can’t tell you how she was feeling in that moment,” Kent said of Herrera Beutler. “I think there is a good chance that was the first stressful situation she’s been in.”
Kent said he supported Trump in part because of his efforts to draw down the U.S.’s endless foreign military deployments, which have taken a deeply personal toll.
Kent’s wife, Shannon Kent, a Navy cryptologist who had served four stints in Iraq and Afghanistan, was killed by a suicide bomber in January 2019 while fighting the terrorist group ISIS in Manbij, Syria, leaving behind two young sons.
Kent met Trump when his wife’s body was returned to the U.S., and says Trump spoke with him for more than 20 minutes, expressing condolences and asking his opinion on foreign deployments. He said he supports Trump’s “America First” agenda, and that he experienced firsthand the contempt entrenched federal employees had for the former president when working for the CIA after retiring from the military.
Last week, Kent disparaged President Joe Biden and an administration official wearing a hijab in a tweet: “America: end our endless wars? Biden: Best we can do is a briefing with a woman in a hijab…”
The tweet referred to a media briefing featuring Sameera Fazili, an attorney and economic-development expert who serves as Deputy Director of the National Economic Council in the Biden administration.
St. John: ‘I don’t do the masks’
St. John, 50, is a Christian author, podcaster and blogger who advises women about marriage and parenting, and frequently warns of Satan’s influence on the world.
In announcing her candidacy, St. John cited the “severe backlash from ongoing controversial decisions” by Herrera Beutler, which she said have “caused division within the party.”
St. John declined interview requests, with an aide saying she was busy traveling to a speaking engagement.
In an Inauguration Day blog post, since removed from her website, St. John echoed Trump’s false claims of election fraud, calling Biden’s election “the greatest vote heist in American history.”
A mother of seven, St. John views public schools as morally corrupted and urges parents to take their kids out of them. In a recent podcast, she advised parents not to allow children to have sleepovers with friends because “nothing good happens after 10 p.m.”
At a meeting of the Clark County Republican Party last week, St. John painted a dark picture of America, saying the nation is “at war with ourselves” and “on the brink of collapse” due to looming Marxism imposed by Democrats.
“This is a battle for the soul of America,” she said.
St. John also has rejected the response to the COVID-19 pandemic as a plot by political elites to damage Trump. In a Facebook video last month, she rejected mask mandates. “I don’t do the mask. It’s BS of the highest order,” she said.
Yakhour criticizes Trump’s critics
Yakhour, 35, the third challenger to emerge against Herrera Beutler, until recently served as chief of staff at the Selective Service System, which runs the nation’s military draft registration system.
He worked under its then-director, former state Sen. Don Benton, who led the 2016 Trump campaign in Washington state.
A Navy veteran who also worked on the Trump campaign, Yakhour declined an interview, with a spokesperson saying he was busy moving back from the Washington D.C. area to the district.
In a video announcing his candidacy, Yakhour flashed photos of Herrera Beutler along with other Republicans who have criticized Trump, including Utah Sen. Mitt Romney. “They aren’t willing to represent our most basic principles, let alone defend them,” Yakhour said in the video.
The field of challengers to Herrera Beutler may grow.
State Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen, said he has been asked by hundreds of constituents to run, but he’s staying out of the race for now.
Walsh said he had “a frank discussion” with Herrera Beutler after she voted to impeach Trump. He said he was doubly puzzled when she went further and encouraged colleagues to testify about Trump’s failure to rein in the Jan. 6 Capitol mob.
“I think the discontent is strong with Herrera Beutler. I am kind of getting the feeling it is not going to be short-lived,” he said.
The opinions expressed in reader comments are those of the author only and do not reflect the opinions of The Seattle Times.