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A Rural Democrat Bets on a Moderate Message
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A Rural Democrat Bets on a Moderate Message

While her party plays defense nationally, Marie Gluesenkamp Perez seeks out disaffected Republicans to flip a red-leaning House district.

Marie Gluesenkamp Perez (Handout)

“It’s one of the most important contests of our lives,” David Nierenberg, an investment manager, said of Washington’s 3rd Congressional District. “It is America’s best versus America’s worst—not ‘America First.’”

His remarks, recorded during a fundraiser in southwest Washington, sound like typical campaign fare. But Nierenberg, a major fundraiser for Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign, was boosting a Democrat, Marie Gluesenkamp Perez, against GOP nominee Joe Kent. The question is whether there are enough independents and disaffected Republicans like him to make a difference. 

Fundraising for a Democrat in Washington’s 3rd District, which Republicans have won since 2008, is a risky bet.

Six-term Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler failed to advance in August’s all-party primary after voting to impeach former President Donald Trump last year. Next month voters will choose between two political novices: Gluesenkamp Perez, an auto shop owner and Democrat, and Joe Kent, a combat veteran. 

Kent, who has said he doesn’t “think there’s anything wrong with there being a white-people special interest group,” exists on the fringes of even today’s Republican Party. The candidate previously called Russian President Vladimir Putin’s demands in Ukraine “reasonable.” He is also known for intense 2020 election-denialism and flirtations with far-right figures

But in a district Trump carried by four points two years ago, Gluesenkamp Perez has an uphill battle against Kent. The race is even tougher for a Democrat at a time when President Joe Biden’s disapproval rating hovers in the low 40s and many voters are preoccupied by crime and high gas prices.

Gluesenkamp Perez’s strategy is to convince independents and disillusioned Republicans that Kent is an affront to their democratic values. A few weeks out from Election Day, her challenge is also convincing these voters that she’ll follow through on serving as an “independent voice” in Congress. 

Even though Gluesenkamp Perez beat Kent by 9 points in the open primary, more than 60 percent of the district’s voters voted Republican. Kent continues to hold a narrow polling lead, and election forecasting firm Sabato’s Crystal Ball rates the race as likely Republican.

That’s all kept national Democratic fundraising groups largely absent from the race. Yet disaffected Republicans like Nierenberg, who supported Herrera Beutler but now wants to purge his party of figures like Kent, haven’t hesitated to jump in. 

“I could not possibly transfer my loyalty from Jamie to him,” said Nierenberg, who now donates to Democrats and moderate Republicans like Sens. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine. “He is so far from the things that my family believe in that we have decided to throw our support energetically behind Marie,” he said. Nierenberg thinks he likely has become her largest bundler, or fundraiser who rounds up small-dollar donations from others into larger campaign contributions.

Kent, who declined to comment for this article, has spent the general election campaign deriding her as a radical Democrat. He often points to her recent claim that her reserved support for the Inflation Reduction Act is proof that she will vote with Democrats on domestic policy.

Gluesenkamp Perez stressed several splits from her party in an interview. She opposes a so-called assault-weapons ban, for instance. The candidate added that her personal experience dealing with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) made her skeptical of burdensome federal regulations.

She also goes on offense—arguing that Kent’s controversial criticism of the FBI following its search of Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home is proof that he’s “not the law and order guy that he’s presenting himself as.” Gluesenkamp Perez added that “my windows at my auto shop have been broken four times this year. I really like it when the police show up when I call.”

There are limits to how much she can separate herself from her party. “I don’t know if he’s gonna run again,” Gluesenkamp Perez said when asked about Biden. “If I could give him a grade, I would give him an incomplete. It’s definitely been a difficult, global environment.”

The biggest unknown is whether Herrera Beutler gets involved in the race. Gluesenkamp Perez said she’s reached out for her endorsement and that the “door is not shut.” Asked if the outgoing congresswoman would endorse the Democratic candidate, a spokesman responded, “What Jaime has said is that she is not launching a write-in campaign, as Joe Kent had indicated he would do if she had finished in the top two.”

Absent an endorsement, the Democrat will test whether she can close the gap with an anti-extremism message. “When you put yourself in an extreme position,” she said. “You can’t pass bills, you can’t deliver for your district.”

Audrey is a former reporter for The Dispatch.