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She voted to impeach Trump. Now Rep. Herrera Beutler tries to navigate a tough primary

Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Wash., speaks during a hearing on June 4, 2020. Herrera Beutler, one of 10 Republican House members who voted to impeach Donald Trump for his role in the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, faces a tough primary Tuesday.
Al Drago
/
Pool via AP
Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Wash., speaks during a hearing on June 4, 2020. Herrera Beutler, one of 10 Republican House members who voted to impeach Donald Trump for his role in the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, faces a tough primary Tuesday.

Eight days before a tough primary, U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler found herself standing on top of a wastewater treatment plant in Washougal, a small town in her district in southwest Washington state.

Her opponents had spent the weekend staging town halls and glad-handing, but the congresswoman said she's focused on her job. That focus brought her to the plant, where Washougal staff thanked her for securing $1 million in federal funds to buy and install something called an anoxic selector.

"That's how you say it?" she said with a laugh. "I'm not going to lie, I can read it. I'm like, 'Let's support that. It looks important.' "

Herrera Beutler was one of just 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach then-President Donald Trump in the wake of the Capitol insurrection. And she is one of three who are on the ballot Tuesday — in Washington state and in Michigan — aiming to fend off primary opponents.

In Washington, to the east of Herrera Beutler's 3rd Congressional District, Rep. Dan Newhouse in the 4th District faces a Trump-backed challenger. As does Rep. Peter Meijer in Michigan.

In her race, Herrera Beutler — who stands by her impeachment vote but has not made it a focus of her reelection bid — faces multiple well-funded challengers from her own party, presenting for the first time the real possibility she may not make it past the primary.

Those challengers include Trump-endorsed former Green Beret Joe Kent and Christian podcaster and homeschool advocate Heidi St. John, who cater to the district's most conservative voters.

The six-term congresswoman, who was first elected in 2010, acknowledged that being flanked from the right is an entirely new experience.

"I've never been in this position, in this way," she told NPR. "I have no metrics — no experience to say, 'This is how everything is going to work. And this is how I should be running this race.' "

So, she said, she's taking a business-as-usual approach.

"This isn't going to make a lot of social media feeds," she said of her wastewater treatment plant tour. "Whereas I've always felt like if you do the work of the hometown congressperson, elections take care of themselves. And that has proven true now several times."

"Jungle primary"

That may be true of how and when she makes public appearances, but the congresswoman is also deploying a different tactic: appealing to moderates, independents and even Democrats.

It's a strategy made possible by Washington state's top-two primary system. The so-called "jungle primary" puts all candidates on one ballot and advances the top two vote-getters to the general election, regardless of party. Because voters aren't required to declare a party affiliation, they can more easily cross the aisle if they choose.

That is seen as likely to benefit Herrera Beutler, who will no longer have the district's dedicated conservatives behind her. While Washington's 3rd District overlaps with the Portland metro area, its rural voters have regularly sailed her to reelection.

Her campaign ads are rife with rhetoric of unity, and mailers bill her as an "independent" candidate.

"Yes, I'm a Republican," Herrera Beutler said in the interview. "But I'm also very independent in my approach. And that's what people want to see here. So I'm betting that's going to continue to be the thing that's most important to voters."

It works in her favor that Democrats — who waged tough challenges in the last two cycles — have largely no-showed this year. One Democratic candidate, Marie Gluesenkamp Perez, joined the race late and has raised far less money than the Republican challengers.

Feuding conservatives

Joe Kent, center, a Trump-endorsed Republican who is challenging Herrera Beutler, speaks during a "Justice For J6" rally near the U.S. Capitol in Washington, on Sept. 18, 2021, in support of people who took part in the Jan. 6 insurrection.
Nathan Howard / AP
/
AP
Joe Kent, center, a Trump-endorsed Republican who is challenging Herrera Beutler, speaks during a "Justice For J6" rally near the U.S. Capitol in Washington, on Sept. 18, 2021, in support of people who took part in the Jan. 6 insurrection.

It also helps Herrera Beutler that Kent and St. John aren't just attacking her, but each other, too.

Thanks to a spending spree by outside groups, mailers and television ads supporting St. John have poured into the district decrying Kent as a secret Democrat and a "Bernie Bro." (Kent acknowledges that he voted for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in Oregon's 2020 presidential primary when he lived there, but he says his aim was to give Trump a weaker opponent.)

Kent frequently vents that St. John is splitting the district's conservative voting bloc and indirectly supporting Herrera Beutler.

"I would not do the establishment ... the favor of being the person who is being manipulated to snuff out the voice of the people," Kent told a crowd of about 30 outside Vancouver, Wash., last month.

Federal campaign filings show Kent has been heavily targeted by outside spending. The Women for Winning Action Fund, which has spent $518,000 on Herrera Beutler's behalf, has also spent $1.7 million against Kent. And a newly created and largely anonymous super PAC called Conservatives for a Stronger America has poured in money on St. John's behalf and spent $520,000 against Kent.

After the town hall, Kent expressed frustration about the spending. He described it as "death by a thousand cuts."

Bad blood between St. John and Kent dates back to March 2021, when they both vowed at a public forum to withdraw and support whomever received Trump's endorsement to unseat Herrera Beutler. The former president endorsed Kent six months later, but St. John remained in the race.

St. John has maintained that she made that agreement before learning more about Kent. She derides him as "Portland Joe," as Kent, a Portland native, was a registered Democrat in Oregon until he moved to the 3rd District.

Voters split

The rift is creating a tough choice for the district's more conservative voters.

Melinda Lucas, a 72-year-old Ridgefield resident, said St. John initially intrigued her, but she gravitated to Kent's policies. Kent supports strict borders, ending foreign wars and an audit of the 2020 election, which he falsely claims was stolen from Trump.

"Election fraud was a big one," Lucas said. "And I will say, my husband said, 'He's a Green Beret. I trust him.' "

Still, other Republicans worry about Kent's ties to extremism. He was a keynote speaker at the so-called "Justice for J6" rally in Washington, D.C., last September, where he called for clemency for people facing criminal charges for the riot.

In March, Kent had to distance himself from white nationalist Nick Fuentes after he publicly claimed Kent's campaign sought to work with him. Kent confirmed he had a phone call with Fuentes, but declined knowing anything about Fuentes and said the relationship never advanced.

Kent's chief consultant, Matt Braynard, told Oregon Public Broadcasting in March that he set up a booth at Fuentes' "America First" convention. Braynard said attendees "didn't seem too interested in us."

And last week, the Associated Press reported that Kent's campaign paid more than $11,000 to a person identified by law enforcement as a member of the far-right Proud Boys. The Kent campaign told a reporter that the man had no "current affiliation" with "outside organizations," the Associated Press reported.

Mark Jager, a 64-year-old Vancouver resident, described St. John and Kent both as "fringe" Republicans but nonetheless said he considered them valid candidates.

"It's a part of the party that I don't identify with but they have absolutely the right to have their views and to be running in this race," Jager said.

Jager said he would support Herrera Beutler in the primary. But Jager said that if Herrera Beutler fell short in the primary, he'd face a tough choice in November.

Jager said he might even consider voting for the Democrat Perez.

"I will look at all candidates, you know, including the Democrat, and vote my conscience on that issue," he said. "I will factor in all candidates in my decision, and may move to the other side of the aisle if I feel so moved."

Copyright 2022 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Troy Brynelson