Six times more challengers have filed to run for Congress in our state than at the same time in the last election. It’s a sign of how broken the system is, but also a sign of hope.
When Dorothy Gasque was running combat patrols in the Iraq war, she realized she was getting a unique perspective on her own country.
“I was looking in from the outside,” Gasque, now 37, says. “What I saw broke my heart.”
America didn’t look so grand. It was wasting trillions on war while its own quality of life was stagnating or even declining.
“I came home really disenchanted,” she says.
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During the next decade, Gasque came to feel that what was really broken wasn’t our institutions of government, such as the military. It was politics. Corporatized, professionalized and polarized to the point of irrationality, Congress seemed at war over even the most minor problems.
Then Trump happened. With even a few Republicans now starting to speak out in protest of President Donald Trump’s destructiveness, it feels like we’re at some sort of tipping point — like the whole of democracy is fraying.
This Iraq war vet has been tipped right into a new sort of campaign: running for Congress herself.
“Trump is only a symptom of the problem,” Gasque told me Tuesday. “The battle is against a political system that makes a Trump presidency possible.”
Gasque, of Hazel Dell, is running in Washington’s 3rd District in the southwest part of the state. I called her because she is one of a record 19 congressional challengers in this state who have already filed for the 2018 election.
At this point in the last federal election, there were only three “challenger,” or non-incumbent, congressional candidates.
“People are angry and upset and can see that it’s not working,” said Democratic campaign consultant Christian Sinderman. “So they’re stepping forward to run in astonishing numbers. A lot of these are people who had never thought of running for office before.”
Only one of the 19 challengers is a Republican. That’s state Sen. Dino Rossi, vying to take over for retiring GOP Rep. Dave Reichert in the 8th District. Of the rest of the statewide bumper crop, 15 are Democrats and three are independents.
They are part of an outpouring nationally of mostly Democratic challengers trying to shake up politics. The Democrats have four to five times more challenger candidates right now than in any election of the past two decades, says Seth Masket, a professor of political science at the University of Denver. Most years the Republicans field more. So far this year, the Democrats have fielded 209 and Republicans just 28.
Here, Democrats already have challengers against every Republican House incumbent. In Vancouver, three Democrats, including Gasque, are lined up against Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler. In Spokane, two Democrats, including former state Sen. Lisa Brown, are taking on Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers.
Even in Eastern Washington’s 4th District, which is so red that no Democrat even made it onto the final ballot the past two elections, there’s already a Democratic challenger: longtime Tri-Cities news anchor Christine Brown.
Some of these candidates are fast starters, too. Issaquah doctor Kim Schrier, in the 8th District, raised $273,000 in her first two months — despite never having run for any office before. Brown took in $224,000 in a month. Rossi, the lone Republican, raked in $579,000 in nine days.
None of this is normal. The most any challenger had raised at this early point in the last election was … $35,000.
“It’s a national phenomenon,” Sinderman said. “Everybody is responding in a big way to Trump.”
“I think politics is changing — you can feel it,” says Gasque, a Bernie Sanders delegate in 2016 now running with the help of a Sanders-inspired organization, Brand-new Congress.
Changing, yes, but which way? In this state nobody is yet running a Steve Bannon-inspired attack candidacy from the right. But the seeds of it may be in Herrera Beutler’s district, where her moderate vote earlier this year against repealing Obamacare was dubbed a “complete betrayal” on some local conservative blogs.
All this early energy doesn’t mean any newcomers will win. Or that Congress will be less dysfunctional.
Or even that any of the Trumpian forces now despoiling the national democracy will be abated.
But it’s sure good to see people trying. If democracy’s going down, it might as well go down fighting.