In normal times, which this definitely is not, a member of Congress saying she was going to vote for the presidential candidate from her own party would be no big deal.
But when Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler of Southwest Washington answered firmly “I am” to a newspaper’s question of “are you going to vote for Trump this year?” it was as if one of the final patches in a national crazy quilt was being laid into place.
Herrera Beutler became among the last of the anti-Trump GOP holdouts in the nation to fall in line. There are now no incumbent Republican U.S. House members who say they won’t vote for the president, and only a handful of U.S. senators, such as Utah’s Mitt Romney, who have been willing to go on record saying they just can’t do it.
Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party is pretty much complete. Political scientists may well look back on this era and wonder: How did it happen? And why did the party of conservatives so willingly go along?
But back to the present: For Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground, coming around on Trump has touched off a unique sort of political storm. She is being pilloried now in ads for flipping to back the candidate who actually won her Vancouver-based district by a solid 7.4 percentage points, 49.9% to 42.5%, in 2016.
“She bought in — to him,” says one ad, disgust in the narrator’s voice, with video of Herrera Beutler saying “I am” alongside footage of Trump talking about injecting bleach to cure the coronavirus.
It makes the 3rd Congressional District one of the few in the country where Democrats, in this case represented by professor Carolyn Long, have gone all-in on saddling a GOP incumbent with the perceived baggage of Trump.
Strangely for such a hot-button figure, Trump has been almost completely missing from political ads this year. An analysis by the Wall Street Journal found he’s been highlighted in only 6% of ads nationwide. The thinking is that more than most political figures, Trump goes without saying. You’re already either for him or against him, and so we might as well focus on something else.
But after five-term incumbent Herrera Beutler won the August primary surprisingly easily, pulling nearly 56% of the vote, her boarding of the Trump train was seized on by Democrats. Especially because she had expressed her disdain for Trump’s obnoxious behavior so personally in the past.
“I didn’t want to have to tell my daughter that I’m OK with behavior like this,” she said about why she didn’t vote for Trump in 2016 (she wrote in then-Speaker of the House Paul Ryan).
The national Democratic Party and a few political action committees have since pumped $1.1 million in independent ad spending into the district, much of it highlighting the Trump conversion. In response, Herrera Beutler has said she’s just going along with the voters in her red-leaning district. National GOP groups, sensing she might need some propping up, have poured in $1.5 million in independent expenditures, pillorying Long as a “liberal professor” who is out-of-touch with the district.
Combined with the candidates’ own fundraising, the total spending will top $10 million, by far the most in the state this year and a record for the district.
It’s all a tell that the national political players feel this is the only congressional race in the state that’s really in play. The previous hot district in the state, the Eighth, which extends from the Eastside suburbs over to Chelan, had a competitive primary vote but so far has drawn zero spending from either of the national parties — suggesting both sides think it’s likely to stay Democratic, in the hands of first-term Rep. Kim Schrier, D-Sammamish.
So what’s going on down in Southwest Washington?
Simple: Of the two dozen Pacific coastline congressional districts in the lower 48 states, Washington’s Third is the only one left still represented by a Republican. The Trump era has all but wiped out GOP moderates — Herrera Beutler is one of the last ones standing.
Second, this is a state where the incumbent president may be headed for defeat by historic margins.
The polls in Washington state since Joe Biden clinched the nomination show the Democrat up by an average of 24 percentage points. Polls can be off as we all know. But no presidential candidate has won our state by more than 18 percentage points going back to 1972 (yes, it was Richard Nixon who last won here by that much, showing just how thoroughly local politics has changed).
Republicans ran stronger than expected in the August primary, but Trump wasn’t on that ballot. If anything like a 25-point blowout happens here this year — look out below.
Herrera Beutler has been an independent-minded voter in Congress and remains favored to win. But her story of reluctantly falling into Trump is the dilemma tale of modern GOP politics. It’s been shown repeatedly that Republicans who distance themselves from Trump, alienating his rock-solid base, don’t earn any crossover love from Democrats and so end up with less voter support than they had before.
So they can’t win without him. But in a blue state, can they win with him? This is the one to watch on election night, as it will decide whether one of the lasting legacies of Trumpism isn’t cobbling together a crazy-quilt of a new political party, but turning the entire West Coast a uniform shade of blue.