BENTON CITY, Benton County — Republican Rep. Dan Newhouse reached across the aisle last year to tackle a tough issue: farm labor. It is of huge importance to the agricultural industry that sustains much of the economy of his 4th Congressional District.
Legislation he co-sponsored with California Democrat Zoe Lofgren, which passed the House of Representatives last year, would overhaul the federal visa program to recruit foreign laborers, and offer them, as well as undocumented farmworkers, an eventual pathway to legal U.S. residence.
“We’re offering them an opportunity for legal status so that they don’t have to sneak across the border. They don’t have to pay a coyote (smuggler) thousands of dollars and put their lives at risk,” Newhouse said in an October interview in this Central Washington city. “And our communities don’t have to have this unfortunate situation where we have a lot of people living in the shadows, literally.”
As Newhouse seeks to defeat Democratic challenger Doug White for a fifth term in Congress, there’s no mention of this signature bill on his campaign website.
Instead, Newhouse sounds a lot like Donald Trump.
He warns about the need for strong borders and enforceable laws to keep the “Radical Left” from transforming “our country’s culture and value system.” And he calls for building a wall along the southern border, defunding all sanctuary cities and fixing the broken immigration system.
The fiery campaign rhetoric, which on the website is accompanied by a photo of a wall fringed with barbed wire, comes as Newhouse seeks votes from Trump supporters still furious with him for voting to impeach the former president following the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection.
“It’s a strategic calculation on the part of his campaign,” said Cornell Clayton, director of the Thomas S. Foley Institute for Public Policy and Public Service at Washington State University. “He doesn’t have to emphasize his moderate policies or his ability to make progress on bipartisan reforms. He needs to show his conservative bona fides.”
Newhouse was one of 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump. And he is one of only two who may return to Congress, since four opted not to run again, and another four, including Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler of Washington’s 3rd District, lost primary contests.
Newhouse’s congressional district stretches from Klickitat County near the Columbia Gorge through Yakima, Benton, Grant, Douglas and Okanogan counties all the way north to the Canadian border. In this vast swath of east-of-Cascades Washington, he has faced a ferocious political backlash.
Six Republican challengers, vying for support of the Trump base, drew more than 49%. of the vote compared to Newhouse’s 25.5%.
The sheer number of primary opponents ended up splintering the votes of the 4th District anti-Newhouse Republicans. So Newhouse was able to eke out a narrow win (by less than 600 votes) over White.
Newhouse remains the favorite to return to the House in this district that has not elected a Democrat since it sent a young Jay Inslee to Congress in 1992. And Newhouse, as of Sept. 30, had raised more than $1.97 million in campaign contributions, compared to White’s $645,464. Super political action committees and other outside groups in the primary also spent more than $1 million on Newhouse’s behalf, according to OpenSecrets, which tracks data on campaign finances.
The general election race may be closer than it appears as some Trump supporters, in social media posts and talks with local party officials, have said they intend to not vote at all.
“For a district this red, it’s an opportunity for Democrats,” said Mike Massey, chair of the Benton County Republican Party. “If enough conservatives don’t vote, Doug White could pull out a win.”
Massey said the impeachment vote was seen as “kicking the ball for the other team, and that’s very offensive to lot of conservatives.”
In the primary, Newhouse failed to get the Benton County Republican Party’s endorsement.
But Massey said he is hoping that conservatives will eventually come around to support Newhouse.
“We told our conservatives to vote for him. If Doug White gets in, then Nancy Pelosi wins,” Massey said.
The barnstorming Democrat
After nearly matching Newhouse’s vote count in the primary, first-time candidate White has been barnstorming the 4th District trying not only to rally Democrats but convince some of the Republicans upset at his impeachment vote to back him in the general election.
That journey has taken him from the Yakama Indian community of White Swan to county fairs, veterans’ events and numerous candidate forums — most recently on Oct. 20 in Tonasket, a conservative stronghold in the apple-growing region of the Okanogan Valley.
“Everyday that goes by, I have more confidence,” White said. “I can tell you I have a lot of converts.”
White grew up on a small farm west of Yakima with fruit trees and cattle that helped supplement his father’s income as a union pipe fitter; he commuted some 100 miles round-trip to work at the Hanford nuclear reservation.
White was the first in his family to attend college, receiving a bachelor’s degree from Western Washington University and later a graduate degree in experimental psychology from San José State University, according to his campaign. He spent much of his career overseas as a business consultant, including the last 15 years in Hong Kong, where he owned a digital marketing company. He returned to Yakima County in 2020.
Back home, White launched a farm-to-table restaurant. As the pandemic took hold, he delivered meals made from local produce to people’s homes. He lives with his mother, father and nephew in the same house where he grew up. Some of the farmland has been sold off but there is still some pasture, a garden and room for his sister’s trailer home.
“We’re a multigenerational household,” White said. “I didn’t get to spend the time with my family that I would have liked. So this is nice.”
White said he was motivated to run, in part, by two big political events: The tightening grip of the Chinese Communist Party on Hong Kong and the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection. Both convinced him that it was time to “step up” and run for political office.
He also was troubled by some of the things he found upon his return to the U.S., including crime and the toll of drugs, such as fentanyl. He said he loves Central Washington “but so much of it that had changed, had not changed for the better.”
White says many people struggle to pay rent, buy a house and raise a family even when both spouses are working. He wants to do more to prepare for climate change, citing the need to develop more water and renewable energy projects in Central Washington.
White also has talked about immigration, which he says on his campaign website “is vital to the economy.” He hails the economic contributions of the “thriving” Latino community, and calls for a path to citizenship for those who want it.
In Congress, immigration reform has long been elusive and a fiercely partisan issue that has intensified as Republicans have sought to keep the focus on a southern border. In the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, undocumented border crossings reached a record high of 2.76 million. That was more than 1 million above the previous year’s then record high, according to federal statistics.
Newhouse, whose own family farm in the Yakima Valley grows hops as well as fruit, has fashioned a bill that focuses more narrowly on farm labor and immigration. His bill makes changes sought by farmers to a program that recruits foreign laborers to temporarily work in U.S. agriculture. It also offers those men and women, as well as undocumented farm workers residing in the United States, a pathway to eventually obtain legal residency.
On his congressional website, Newhouse has promoted the bill, and in a July 12 meeting with journalists, as well as subsequent interviews, he has called for the Senate to pass it.
When The Seattle Times asked Newhouse why the bill was not mentioned on his campaign website, Newhouse said he was not embarrassed about the bill, and that people in Central Washington understand the need for immigration reform. But there also needs to be secure borders, he said.
During a tour of a Benton City printing plant earlier this month with Newhouse, his congressional staff said further questions about the campaign should be handled in a separate interview set up by campaign staffers.
Repeated efforts to reach Newhouse campaign manager Derek Flint via calls, text messages and emails were unsuccessful.
White said Newhouse has yet to agree to a debate, and Newhouse has not shown up to candidate forums White has attended.