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Jaime Herrera Beutler’s Issues-Based Bet
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Jaime Herrera Beutler’s Issues-Based Bet

The Washington Republican has bested Tea Party insurgents and well-funded Democrats. Will her focus on local issues be enough to survive a challenge from the MAGA right?

RIDGEFIELD, Wash.—“So when’s the last time you caught a fish on the East Fork?” Dion Hess, a longtime fishing guide, asks another. He sports a hoodie, blue jeans, and work boots. His hearty voice fills the room; his usual setting is hours spent on boats along the tributaries and rivers running like veins throughout Washington.

“Oh, years,” the other guide, Casey Kelley, responds.

Outside, despite the drizzly gray Saturday in February, parents huddle beneath umbrellas to watch their teenagers field baseballs in a sprawling sports complex in the small town of Ridgefield. Inside, just under a dozen fishing guides sit for a meeting with their congresswoman.

An occasional muted cheer from the ball fields reaches the upstairs room of the concession building, but it doesn’t slow the discussion.

The problem, says another guide, is that stringent state policies have reduced the population of fish stock, particularly of nonnative species that require controlled breeding in hatcheries.

“They don’t understand it—it’s not that they’re against it,” another argues. “These groups only want fish to spawn naturally in the river.”

“Which is great,” Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler interjects, “if we hadn’t touched the river.”

After her answer comes a chorus of Exactlys and vigorous head nods from her audience.

For the next hour, they go back and forth about the decline in steelhead and other fish populations, worrying about how natural enemies (predation from the aquatic Cormorant bird) and unnatural ones (bureaucracy and overregulation) affect their livelihoods. They always come back to what solutions could help.

Herrera Beutler rapidly scribbles notes when she’s not asking or answering questions, her fingers sometimes playing with a blue ballpoint pen.

Afterward, Kelley tells me they only “scratched the surface” in the discussion but says he is confident that if anyone can get something done, Herrera Beutler will.

She’d done it before with a bill allowing authorities to thin out a growing sea lion population preying on salmon and other fish on the Columbia River. That had been huge, Kelley says. He’s confident that this time too, the six-term Republican knows the issue and will try to help.

Herrera Beutler represents Washington’s 3rd District in the southwestern part of the state. Before that, she served in the state House of Representatives after her appointment in 2007 when her predecessor, facing a sex scandal, resigned. 

Her first congressional race, which handed the GOP a district the party hadn’t held since 1995, earned her the label of a rising Republican star. It’s a district that has proved tough for either party to hold for very long, going from George W. Bush twice to Barack Obama in 2008. Redistricting in 2012 tinged it a deeper shade of red and in 2016, Donald Trump carried it with 49 percent of the vote. In 2020, Trump won the district with 51 percent. Herrera Beutler ran ahead of Trump both times—capturing nearly 62 percent of the vote in 2016 and then 56 percent in 2020. 

In 2010 she was one of the youngest elected members of Congress at age 32, and Time magazine featured her in its “40 under 40” listing, highlighting her relative youth and Hispanic roots. With a white mom and Mexican-American dad, she was the first person of Hispanic descent elected to Congress from Washington. 

Perhaps internalizing the dynamics of her district, she’s demonstrated an independent streak during her time on Capitol Hill. Despite coming to Congress with the Tea Party wave, Herrera Beutler carved out a more moderate lane. While adhering to classic conservative positions on fiscal and social issues such as big spending (in 2020 she voted against Democrats’ COVID relief spending) and abortion, she’s earned a reputation as an effective policymaker willing to work across the aisle to get her priorities across the finish line.

But Herrera Beutler is heading into the most challenging reelection campaign of her career thus far—yet she shows no signs of backing down. The reason she faces the ire of some conservatives: She was one of 10 House Republicans to vote to impeach Trump after the January 6 attack on the Capitol. Of those 10, three thus far have announced their retirement plans. The rest are facing conservative primary challengers. 

It’s not just her impeachment vote that inspired attacks from the MAGA wing of the Republican Party. Near the end of the Senate trial following the House impeachment proceedings, House impeachment managers briefly considered calling her as a witness to discuss a conversation she said she had with House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy about his January 6, 2021, phone call with Trump. McCarthy asked Trump specifically to call off the Capitol attackers. The president reportedly answered: “Well, Kevin, I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are.” Herrera Beutler had referenced the conversation in her statement explaining her vote in favor of impeachment.

She says hearing about the call spoke to where Trump’s “frame of mind was” while the riot was happening, factoring into her vote.

Ultimately, Democrats chose not to call any witnesses.

Herrera Beutler downplays her willingness to testify. “I had made that information public weeks before. I think it just made national news at that point because someone paid attention,” she tells The Dispatch. “I was a little taken aback like, this isn’t news to me.” 

In contrast to more fiery colleagues like Reps. Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, Herrera Beutler has largely stayed away from talk about the faultlines January 6 and Trump’s behavior created in her party. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s joint fundraising PAC, Take Back the House 2022, has donated $160,600.23 to her campaign.

But her vote and the spotlight she found herself in during the impeachment trial have placed her in the middle of a fight over the future of the Republican Party. Her race is a microcosm of the internal battles still roiling the Republican Party in the wake of the Trump presidency. She’s betting that her pragmatic approach to politics will overcome dissatisfaction brewing in the MAGA flank of the party. 

Jaime Herrera Beutler meets with fishermen in her district. (Handout)

Herrera Beutler remembers the day that led to Trump’s second impeachment vividly, more than a year later.

In an interview with The Dispatch, Herrera Beutler recounts evacuating the House floor as rioters broke down barricades and fought their way into the Capitol. After holing up in Washington Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers’ office, she decided to try to get back to where her staff waited in her own office.

Down one hallway, she ran into two Capitol Police officers who “had had the total shit beat out of them.” After a pause, Herrera Beutler adds: “Excuse my language, but that was it. They were kind of limping and walking, and they were dazed, and they had bear spray on their faces.”

“Has Donald Trump said anything yet?” she says she asked them. “Has he gotten on TV? Has he called anything off?”

No, they told her.

“It was just a moment of total clarity,” she tells me.

Herrera Beutler understands that the GOP is sharply divided on Trump’s actions and his culpability. There’s room for disagreement, she says, on whether Trump meant to incite an insurrection. But she became convinced his inaction, as the attack continued for hours, violated his oath of office. 

“In terms of responsibility, if you’re a mile from the House, or from anywhere, and there’s a massive riot taking place and you don’t, as the commander in chief, try to stop it?” she says. “To me, the counting of Electoral Ballots is the Constitution in process. … And if you aren’t willing to stop an attack on that, irrespective of your party, irrespective of everything, then it’s a dereliction of your duty.”

Beutler later voted for legislation to create an equally divided, independent commission to investigate the events leading up to and on January 6. Senate Republicans blocked that commission. The House set up its own commission, which only two Republicans—Cheney and Kinzinger—ended up participating in. 

But she believes Democrats mishandled the investigation into January 6 by ending the Senate trial quickly.

“What I learned from that was nobody really wanted to do the work of investigating,” Herrera Beutler reflects in our conversation. “My big takeaway was, oh, you want to impeach him if you can make political points out of it. But if you really want to do the work of then telling the American people the why and showing them the why on TV, with Republicans asking questions and Democrats asking questions and letting the American people truly judge—you don’t want to do it. That was a shame to me.”

She is concerned the partisanship surrounding the January 6 committee will likely cause many Americans to dismiss its findings.

It’s not as much about what I think. It’s about what people at home think, and if they think it’s a partisan committee, then the findings are marred. That was why I pushed for one that wasn’t made up of members of Congress, a bipartisan commission.”

She adds that if the Senate had more fully examined the evidence and brought witnesses during the impeachment trial, “I think you could have circumvented the need for this.”

Herrera Beutler’s willingness to testify, as well as her vote to impeach, angered some Republicans in her district. A number of Republican challengers, citing her vote, have jumped into the race. 

In Washington, candidates from all parties compete in a “jungle” primary, set for August, where they all appear on the same ballot. The top two performing candidates, regardless of party, will then advance to the general election in November.

Sabato’s Crystal Ball of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics has rated the race likely Republican, while noting that “it may be more secure for the GOP if Herrera Beutler makes the general election.”

Herrera Beutler’s supporters at home are betting her long history of serving the district will carry her to victory. They say her strength lies in her laser focus on the local issues affecting her district, something that may help her pick up more centrists and even Democratic voters. The southwestern district runs from small harbor towns dotting the coast down to the metropolitan area of Vancouver, Washington, across the state line from Portland, Oregon. It includes mountains and valleys, draped with evergreen, and skirts larger cities like Olympia. 

“Small businesses and main street businesses are huge, that’s basically our economy,” she says. “We’re not heavy military—we don’t have a bunch of giant corporations, although we’re attracting some. But small- and medium-sized businesses are the lifeblood of the jobs in this area.”

When COVID-19 spread to American soil, the first reported cases hit Washington state. It wouldn’t be long before its consequences reverberated around the nation.

Suddenly, everyone had pandemic-related challenges: Small business owners fought for grants to keep their doors open, shellfish business owners found their permits threatened, and constituents needed to get their children to overcrowded hospitals. 

Remote work as a U.S. lawmaker in a house with three kids under the age of 10 came with challenges. Herrera Beutler set up shop in her house in Camas, usually from a corner in one of her kids’ rooms on the second floor. It was one of the only spots in the house where cell calls wouldn’t drop.

Her kids developed a preternatural ability to sense when she was about to get on an important call with federal bureaucrats, other lawmakers, or state officials. Inevitably, someone would begin hollering or banging on the door.

“I’m like, Everybody be quiet for two minutes, because I have to yell at the governor!” she says. 

But she and her team felt they were firing on all cylinders. “The pandemic really gave me and my staff the necessary platform to go all-out. Because everybody needed help.”

A phone call here or a strongly worded email there made a real difference, she found. She calls it “riding shotgun” with her constituents to make sure they get what they need, such as when she had to work with the U.S. State Department to get constituents stranded overseas back home.

“I like being that useful. I like getting the chance to really step in and be of service at a very stressful time,” Herrera Beutler says.

She’s uninterested in a style of lawmaking that is flashy or power-seeking. She describes faith as a driving motivation and seeks to stay grounded to the daily issues her constituents face.

“I feel accountable to a higher power. I feel accountable to the people I serve, but I also personally know I’m responsible for doing this to the best of my ability,” she says. “God cares about people. He tells us to care and love people. That’s what I bring to this job.”

She’s tried to foster an office culture focused on service. “Our casework services and our constituent services are very solid, and the team knows their goal isn’t to be somebody climbing in an office that’s going to go into leadership and be important in DC and make a lot of TV news,” she adds. “It’s when somebody calls and is in a desperate situation, a federal agency is standing between them and their housing—which has  happened—we’re going to go to bat for them.” 

One of her top priorities is health care, particularly maternal and child care issues. It’s a set of issues especially personal to Herrera Beutler.

In 2013, she and her husband Daniel got the good news she was pregnant with their first child. But at around 22 weeks, when Herrera Beutler felt her baby moving and squirming, they got the bad news.

In a routine ultrasound scan at George Washington Hospital, the couple found out their baby had bilateral renal agenesis. The rare disease meant the baby did not have kidneys and lacked the amniotic fluid that was necessary to grow lungs. The diagnosis is usually a death sentence.

“We believed. We knew the Lord. We had a faith,” says Herrera Beutler, who is an evangelical Christian. “But when it came to the point where 100 percent, the baby you are carrying is going to die, I feel like the rubber does hit the road.” In the 24 hours after the diagnosis, she remembers, “We went through a lot of grief.”

They decided not to terminate the pregnancy, against doctors’ advice. She learned about an experimental medical treatment of saline injections, and a doctor at John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore eventually agreed to try it in hopes the baby’s lungs would grow. 

“That’s what they die of. No fluid means lungs won’t grow. So even if they are carried to term, they suffocate when they’re born because they can’t exchange oxygen. So within minutes, they die,” she says.

The treatment was successful. When the baby was born, three months premature, she cried, something a baby without lungs can’t do. And after two years of dialysis, Daniel donated one of his kidneys to the baby. Abigail, now nearly 9 years old, is a “happy, healthy big sister.” They’ve also welcomed two more children, Ethan in 2016 and Isana in 2019.

Since then, Herrera Beutler and Democratic Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard formed a bipartisan maternity care caucus. And Herrera Beutler has shepherded bills to create a nationwide grant program to gather more accurate data about maternal deaths and made it easier for parents traveling with breast milk, baby food, and feeding equipment to navigate airport security.

She’s also found common ground with Democrats and Republicans working on natural resources issues addressing industries including timber and fishing, which are key parts of the Pacific Northwest economy.

“We share some of the same geography and so you know, the things that are common between us, the Columbia River system, she’s been a great partner in prioritizing those issues,” Rep. Dan Newhouse, a Republican who represents the state’s 4th District, tells The Dispatch. “The issues that are important to us in the Pacific Northwest are not necessarily blue and red issues, are not necessarily partisan issues. They’re Washington state issues.”

“She’s thoughtful,” he adds. “She just doesn’t, you know, stick her finger up in the political winds to see which way she should vote. So I admire that. That takes fortitude and strength to do.”

She maintained that approach throughout the Trump presidency, though it was tested over the years.

Jaime Herrera Beutler and daughter Abigail (Handout)

Like many Republicans, Herrera Beutler wrestled with where to land on the meteoric rise of Donald Trump. After Trump’s vulgar remarks about women and sexual assault surfaced on the Access Hollywood tape, she wrote in House Speaker Paul Ryan on her presidential ballot in 2016, according to The Columbian. 

But over time she, like many Republicans, came to an uneasy peace with the leader of the party. She still broke with him at points: She didn’t support the GOP’s Affordable Care Act repeal due to the impact it would have on children relying on Medicaid. In 2019, she was one of 13 Republicans to vote to overturn Trump’s national emergency declaration, which he used to route funding to the construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. And she was one of just 11 House Republicans in a 2020 vote to support repealing the 2002 Iraq war authorization.

But she also found much common ground with Trump. One FiveThirtyEight tally found she voted with Trump 79.7 percent of the time. So in 2020, she cast her vote for Trump in the presidential contest.

On a nearly cloudless day at the end of February, Herrera Beutler stands on the side of the Cowlitz River, gazing down at a sandy bank. A small group of constituents discusses the sediment that has caused flooding and other problems since Mount St. Helens blew in 1980. Not once does she or anyone else allude to the campaign sure to heat up as the 2022 midterms draw closer. Instead, she peppers attendees with questions and talks about her work on the Appropriations Committee to get funding to monitor the issue.

One supporter, Cowlitz County Commissioner Dennis Weber, tells The Dispatch afterward that Herrera Beutler is facing a tough race, but she has met challenges before.

“She knows where her support comes from. And she has battled the libertarian wing of the party almost from day one. They’ve always complained about her being willing to be a statesman … to work with the other side if need be,” he says. “That attracts people in the middle. That’s where her best sort of strength is. It’s in the middle, and the middle will come out.”

Washington State Rep. Paul Harris of Vancouver is also bullish on Herrera Beutler’s chances. 

“The 3rd District is a moderately Republican, very just slightly Republican district,” Harris tells The Dispatch. “Who we hear from is the screaming on both sides of the far left and far right. … But I really believe that the majority of the people lie in the middle.”

But there is reason to wonder whether that is the case. A vocal segment of Republicans say the race is a referendum on Herrera Beutler’s record on Trump.

After the 2021 impeachment vote, Cowlitz County and Clark County Republican central committees held votes withdrawing their support from Herrera Beutler and criticizing her decision.

Jerry Cooper, vice chair of Cowlitz County’ Republican Central Committee, tells The Dispatch Herrera Beutler always inspired some grumbling whenever she broke with Trump on votes. “But nothing really tipped the scale” until her vote to impeach.

“People weren’t happy,” he says. “Almost every Republican I talked to said, ‘You know, I supported her for years and now no more.’”

“There really is a strong push to knock her out at the primary level,” Cooper adds.

Washington State Republican Party Chairman Caleb Heimlich tells The Dispatch the party decided to take a neutral position in the race, even though historically the state party supports incumbents. 

“Obviously the vote to impeach has kind of defined this race,” he says. “At the end of the day, we want a Republican representing District 3.”

Primary challenger Joe Kent, a former Green Beret, has sought to frame the race as a brawl between “the establishment” and the MAGA wing of the party. He’s primarily focusing on national issues such as immigration and foreign policy. But he has also appeared at a rally for rioters charged in the January 6 melee and boosted conspiracies that the 2020 election was stolen.

Other GOP challengers include state Rep. Vicki Kraft and Christian author Heidi St. John. But Kent is likely Herrera Beutler’s largest threat. He’s raised more than $1 million and secured Trump’s endorsement, as well as a donation from billionaire entrepreneur Peter Thiel. 

Kent has touted support from fringe Reps. Paul Gosar and Marjorie Taylor Greene, both of whom have faced criticism in recent days for speaking for an event hosted by a white nationalist organization. Kent recently had to deny any association with Nick Fuentes, a white nationalist youth activist, after St. John tweeted a video of Fuentes saying he had talked with Kent on the phone. Kent attempted to distance himself from the call, telling Oregon Public Broadcasting’s Troy Brynelson that he condemned Fuentes’ beliefs and that the call was a discussion of social media strategy. But after facing some online backlash from Fuentes and his supporters, he appeared on the YouTube channel of a white nationalist group, American Populist Union, to soften his stance.

“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with there being a white-people special interest group,” he said of Fuentes in the video. “As far as me running as a candidate, running out there and saying this is all about white people, that does not seem like a winning strategy.”

In a call with The Dispatch, Kent claims Republicans like Herrera Beutler “fought Trump every step of the way.”

When asked whether focusing on January 6 and the 2020 election is a winning issue for the district as opposed to focusing on local issues, Kent says: “I don’t think we can back down on what happened with the last election. What I say is, I want to have a full congressional inquiry into the last election. Subpoena witnesses. Subpoena evidence. Finish the constitutionally appointed process that was disrupted on January 6. Let every state where there’s evidence of fraud—lay it all out for the American people.” He adds: “So I think it’s key because it comes up all the time.”

While he believes the 2020 election was fraudulent, Kent doesn’t think “we’re gonna prove something that’s going to get Trump installed tomorrow.” He also believes January 6 was a false flag operation: “I know what an intelligence operation looks like. The more that comes out of January 6 the more it looks like there was an intelligence operation.”

Though there are only a smattering of campaign signs dotting the yards and freeways across much of the district, fears that Southwest Washington will take a sharp turn to the right have started to reach Democrats. One columnist, Andrew Stepankowsky with local news outlet The Daily News, urged Democrats to support Herrera Beutler in a recent opinion piece.

One Democrat planning on heeding the call is Rocky Caldero, vice president of operations at Safe Coast Seafoods. For him, the person is more important than the party. And Herrera Beutler, he said, “gets s— done.” But he’s gloomy about her prospects, fearing Democrats and independents may not be fired up enough to come out for the primary. “And I firmly feel as though the Trumpers are going to come out.”

Herrera Beutler is more confident about her odds. She also boasts a larger war chest: She’s raised roughly $2.26 million over the course of this election cycle.

“Folks in this district look at the totality of this person,” Herrera Beutler says. “They want to agree with you on most things, but they don’t have to agree with you on everything. So to make a campaign on defending a riot at the Capitol a central issue for people in Southwest Washington, I don’t think it’s going to turn out so well.”

Harvest Prude is a former reporter at The Dispatch.