There is an old adage in Washington politics: Add up the votes that Democrats get in the primary election, add up the votes that Republicans get in the primary, and you’ve got a pretty good sense of what will happen in the general election.
This year, it had one very notable failure.
In Southwest Washington’s 3rd Congressional District, Republicans got 65% of the August primary vote, Democrats just 33%. And yet a few months later, Democrat Marie Gluesenkamp Perez, a previously unknown auto shop owner, pulled off perhaps the political upset of the year, knocking off Donald Trump-endorsed Republican Joe Kent and swinging a red district blue in an outcome that virtually no one saw coming.
She did it by presenting herself as a moderate and pragmatic alternative to the flame-throwing, pugnacious Kent. She touted herself as someone less interested in making national headlines than in grinding away at unflashy local issues.
She transformed a campaign that was virtually unfunded for most of 2022 to one that raised more than $3 million, knocked on 40,000 doors and had a specific strategy that ran counter to the prevailing theory of how modern politics functions.
In a Republican-leaning district, Gluesenkamp Perez believed she could woo enough Republican voters, put off by Kent’s hard-right policies and embrace of conspiracy theories, to make the difference.
Where Kent, an ex-Green Beret combat veteran, rewrote the history of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, Gluesenkamp Perez talked about apprenticeship and job training. Where Kent wanted to prosecute Dr. Anthony Fauci for murder, Gluesenkamp Perez wanted more support for small businesses. Where Kent wanted a national abortion ban, Gluesenkamp Perez said she wanted to protect both abortion rights and gun rights.
Kent pledged to impeach Joe Biden; Gluesenkamp Perez pledged not to support Nancy Pelosi for House speaker.
After media organizations called the race for Gluesenkamp Perez over the weekend, Kent’s campaign sent a text message to supporters asking for “your help pushing back against potential voter fraud.”
Kent did not concede and was urging supporters to check their ballot status to see if they needed to correct their signature or any other issue. He trailed by about 3,300 votes Monday evening, with less than 4,000 estimated left to count.
Gluesenkamp Perez on Monday morning said people “want a Congress with a little bit of grease under their fingernails.”
“I think we’re all really tired of clickbait politics, we want people who are in Congress to work, not to get Twitter celebrity,” Gluesenkamp Perez said on MSNBC, one of multiple cable news appearances she made from D.C. on Monday morning as she visited the Capitol for a new members orientation.
Gluesenkamp Perez pulled off the upset (the political website FiveThirtyEight had given her a 2% chance at victory) despite getting almost no national help. The big Democratic outside spending groups largely ignored the race, spending about $300,000, and only in the very final days of the race. Just up Interstate 5, in Washington’s 8th Congressional District, the biggest national Democratic groups spent nearly $6 million.
Republicans had held the Third District seat since 2010, when six-term Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler was first elected. This year, Herrera Beutler was knocked off in the primary, punished by Republican voters for her vote to impeach Trump over the Jan. 6 attack.
The district has been consistently Republican, but it’s not deep red. It spans the fishing and timber towns of the Pacific Coast to the farmlands of Lewis and Skamania counties, but is dominated by Vancouver and Portland suburbs.
After Herrera Beutler’s loss, Gluesenkamp Perez’s camp saw a transformed race.
In a strategy memo, a week after the primary, the campaign noted that Biden had won 46% in the district in 2020. The strongest Democrat statewide in 2020, Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler, won 55% of the district.
Democratic votes were so low in the primary, they reasoned, because many Democrats had supported Herrera Beutler explicitly in an effort to stop Kent. About half of Herrera Beutler’s 22% of the primary vote, the campaign estimated, came from Democrats.
“These voters will return to MGP in the general election, along with independent voters and Republicans (especially women) who cannot stomach Joe Kent,” Phil Gardner, who came on as Gluesenkamp Perez’s campaign manager following the primary, wrote in the memo.
Gardner, in an interview, ticked off some of Kent’s positions: defunding the FBI, ending support for Ukraine, denying 2020 election results.
“The prevailing thinking is that everything is polarized, everything is partisan, there is no bottom, you can say whatever and people will still vote for party over everything,” Gardner said. “We just never accepted that premise.”
The campaign ran ads with Gluesenkamp Perez in coveralls at her repair shop, felling a tree with a chain saw at her rural home and showing Republican voters who said they couldn’t support Kent.
It helped, Gardner said, that Herrera Beutler conspicuously declined to endorse Kent, her fellow Republican, in the general election.
“That she wasn’t willing to go along with this, that would have been the easiest thing for her politically, that took a lot of guts, a lot of courage,” Gardner said.
He said that Gluesenkamp Perez and Herrera Beutler never spoke before the general election, but “there were back channels over to what was happening with folks around Jaime.”
David Nierenberg, a Camas, Clark County, investment manager and major GOP fundraiser who backed Herrera Beutler, became one of Gluesenkamp Perez’s leading fundraisers following the primary.
Herrera Beutler did not respond to requests for comment.
In the relative absence of spending from national Democrats, Fuse Washington, a progressive advocacy group, and its affiliated super PAC spent about $800,000 on the race, beginning in September.
“It wasn’t necessarily that we believed Perez could win,” said Aaron Ostrom, the group’s executive director. “We believed there was kind of a moral obligation to see if there was a path for her to win and to keep Joe Kent out of Congress.”
They ran ads highlighting Kent’s support for Jan. 6 attackers, his connections with groups like the Proud Boys and his push for a national abortion ban.
One ad features a veteran, speaking solemnly to the camera.
“Joe Kent and I swore the same oath,” he says. “If we want to protect our freedoms, we can’t vote for Joe Kent.”
The group’s polling, Ostrom said, showed moderates, independents and even Republicans were most put off by Kent’s stances on abortion and election denial.
“They didn’t move straight to Perez, they moved to undecided, because in today’s world it’s hard for Republicans to vote for a Democrat,” Ostrom said. “So our job was to make those folks uncomfortable, to make Joe Kent someone they could not vote for.
“And then Marie had to make herself a compelling alternative, which she did.”
Melinda Finn-Kamerath was one of those Republican voters who just couldn’t stomach Kent. She doesn’t always vote Republican, but she said she voted for Herrera Beutler in the past and voted for her in the primary.
A mother of three from Kalama, Cowlitz County, she looked into Kent after Herrera Beutler lost. She was turned off by his accusations of voter fraud and his push to send all federal law enforcement dollars to local sheriffs instead.
“I just really believe in democracy and the power of the vote,” said Finn-Kamerath, 39. “I just realized that I can vote for a Republican, but I can’t vote for that type of Republican.”
When she looked into Gluesenkamp Perez, she liked that she owned a small business and she liked what she heard about lowering prescription drug prices and health care costs.
She ended up volunteering for her campaign, spending a few days, here and there, knocking on doors in Kalama and Vancouver.
A lot of people, she said, would tell her they weren’t impressed with Biden and hated Trump.
“You’re preaching to the choir,” she’d say, before pitching Gluesenkamp Perez as “the best option for Southwest Washington.”