Republicans are itching for a chance to retake Washington’s 8th Congressional District and oust Rep. Kim Schrier, who flipped the seat four years ago, helping Democrats win a House majority.
But Schrier’s fate is a fight that will play out in the November general election.
The big question in the Aug. 2 primary is which Republican challenger will emerge to take on Schrier in a swing district rated as a 2022 “toss up” by national election experts.
Three Republican contenders have dominated fundraising, polling and endorsements as they compete to convince Republicans and GOP-leaning independents that they have the chops to go up against Schrier this fall.
Reagan Dunn, a longtime Metropolitan King County Council member, is seeking to follow in the footsteps of his mother, the late Jennifer Dunn, who represented the district for six terms between 1993 and 2005.
Jesse Jensen, a decorated Army combat veteran and tech manager, is taking a second shot at the seat after running in 2020 and coming within 4 percentage points of Schrier despite being vastly outspent.
Matt Larkin, an attorney and co-owner of his family’s manufacturing business, who ran unsuccessfully for attorney general in 2020, is also running for the seat, and has loaned $530,000 to his own campaign.
All three are emphasizing rising consumer costs, supply chain woes and crime concerns, leaning into poor approval ratings for President Joe Biden to argue the country has gotten off track due to Democratic policies.
In a sign of the difficult midterm environment for Biden’s party, Schrier, who faces no viable Democratic rivals in the primary, has implausibly sought to distance herself from him, recently running TV ads claiming she was “standing up” to the president on gasoline prices.
Who can take on Schrier?
With ballots in the hands of voters, the primary has turned heated and personal as Dunn and Jensen swap attacks over negative flyers from a Jensen-aligned super PAC. The flyers cite media reports and divorce records to highlight episodes from Dunn’s past, including a 2014 DUI conviction and his well-publicized struggles with alcoholism.
Jensen and his supporters warn Dunn’s past would be relentlessly exploited by Democrats should Dunn advance to the general election, jeopardizing Republicans’ chances of taking back an otherwise winnable House seat.
“He goes down in flames against Kim Schrier,” Jensen told The Seattle Times, citing polling he said shows Dunn would fare disastrously with independent women voters.
The “Lead the Way” SuperPAC has raised more than $330,000, funded by a handful of wealthy donors, including Mark Robison, an construction company founder from Snoqualmie, who has given $121,000.
Dunn, who says he’s been sober for more than four years and takes regular alcohol and drug tests as part of a parenting agreement from his divorce, blasted the Jensen camp’s attacks as dishonest and dirty.
“It’s sad when a candidate has to bring up a 10-year-old marriage and divorce to try to win an election,” Dunn said. He also criticized as deceptive mailers that distort his county record to make him appear to be a champion of tax increases and defunding the police.
As for his viability against Schrier, Dunn pointed to mailers recently sent out by her campaign criticizing his stance on abortion rights, saying it shows she’s “most worried about a matchup against me.”
Larkin has stayed out of that fray while working to position himself as the most conservative of the top three contenders, and trying to draw attention to his “Make Crime Illegal Again” campaign slogan.
After media reports by The Seattle Times and an online British tabloid about Dunn’s past this year, Republican leaders met on a Zoom call to discuss his vulnerabilities.
The conversation ended with “no judgment,” said Dave McMullan, chair of the Pierce County Republicans. “It never turned into anything more than that one Zoom meeting. We know that he has been on the wagon.”
Mathew Patrick Thomas, chair of the King County Republican Party, called the 8th District primary “a wide open race” as the Aug. 2 primary deadline approaches. “There are so many different factions and elements in the party. The question is who shows up and votes.”
Candidates tout their records
A County Council member since 2005, Dunn is touting his experience as the only Schrier challenger who has been elected to office. An attorney, he previously worked as a federal prosecutor and for the Justice Department in Washington, D.C.
He points to accomplishments including leading a push for bail reform for dangerous defendants following the murder of four Lakewood police officers in 2009. He also has cited his own addiction struggle in pushing for more funding for treatment and mental health services.
Jensen emphasizes “servant leadership,” including his four combat tours in Afghanistan. His campaign website is dominated by a photo of him holding a rifle while flying in a helicopter over the country in 2010. He served as an elite Army Ranger, rising to the rank of captain, and earning medals including two Bronze Stars.
After leaving the military he got a business degree and went to work for tech companies, becoming a manager at Amazon and more recently a director at Zillow.
Amid U.S. forces’ chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan last year, Jensen joined other veterans to help create Task Force Argo, an effort that rescued 3,000 people stranded in the country as the Taliban took control, including Afghan allies and American citizens.
Larkin emphasizes his private-sector background and conservative views. After graduating from law school he worked as a White House speechwriter in the final year of George W. Bush’s administration.
He worked for a couple of months as a deputy prosecutor in Pierce County before joining his family’s company, Romac Industries, where he has worked as legal counsel. The Bothell manufacturing firm founded by his grandfather makes pipe-related products for water and sewer systems.
How they stand on abortion
With abortion emerging alongside inflation as a top 2022 issue for voters in Washington — sparked by the Supreme Court’s decision striking down long-standing federal abortion protections — differences are emerging among the Republican rivals.
Jensen, the son of a minister, said he identifies as personally “pro-life,” and praised the Supreme Court’s ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization allowing each state to set its own restrictions.
But Jensen repeatedly declined to say how he’d vote if a national abortion ban floated by some Republicans were to come before the U.S. House. “I don’t want to dive into hypotheticals,” he said.
Larkin opposes abortion and called the Dobbs decision “a victory for life.” Asked about potential federal legislation restricting or banning abortions, he said “I’d want to see the specifics of the ban” but said he “would not be opposed to it.”
Dunn describes his stance on abortion as “libertarian.” He said he would not vote for a federal ban but also would not vote to codify abortion rights if elected to Congress.
“I prefer the government not be involved in this decision at all,” he said.
Dunn said he supports Washington’s voter-approved law protecting abortion rights in this state, but does not support public funding of the procedure. He recently was the lone no vote on the King County Council on providing $500,000 to pay for people traveling to the county to obtain abortions.
All three Republican rivals also said they’d look to cut government spending, with Dunn saying he supports an 8% cut across federal agencies except for the Department of Defense. He said he’d seek to boost funding for the Department of Homeland Security and Customs and Border Protection by 40%.
Larkin and Jensen said they’d look to eliminate waste and would oppose additional giant domestic spending proposals such as the stalled “Build Back Better” plan.
A relative latecomer to the race, Scott Stephenson, is making a pitch in the primary as an “America First” Trump Republican. He has put $190,000 of his own money into his campaign, which otherwise has received few donations.
Stephenson, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology-educated rocket scientist who recently quit his job at Amazon as principal technical program manager leading global launches for Alexa, has been touring the district in an RV appealing to conservative voters.
In a speech in June, he ripped Democratic and Republican leaders alike, echoing Trump’s claims of a “stolen election,” attacking “unscientific lockdowns and mask mandates” and “the radical trans agenda that is taking over our public schools.”
In response to a request last week for an interview about his candidacy, Stephenson replied in an email: “I am running against the radical Left and the weak, establishment Right and I decline your request for an interview.”