Two of Tuesday’s primaries in Washington state represent a key question for the Republican Party: 18 months removed from Donald Trump’s second impeachment, has the GOP anger at party lawmakers who backed the effort subsided?
Primary voters will answer that question for Reps. Jaime Herrera Beutler and Dan Newhouse, two of the 10 House Republicans who joined Democrats to impeach Trump after the January 6, 2021, attack on the US Capitol. In the months since their votes, both have paid the price at home. They have been criticized by their state party, censured by local leaders and challenged by handfuls of Republican challengers.
But heading into Tuesday, Republicans in Washington state acknowledge that there is considerable uncertainty in both primaries, leading many in the state to believe it is possible – if not likely – that they could survive.
“If the vote was held a month (after the impeachment decision), they probably would have lost,” said one Washington Republican operative. “But given 9% inflation, given the high gas prices we saw, if you are talking with conservative voters, they may be more concerned with the current situation in the country than they are 16 or 18 months ago.”
Herrera Beutler is facing off against a series of opponents who have attacked her for the impeachment vote, including author Heidi St. John, state Rep. Vicki Kraft and retired special forces officer Joe Kent, whom Trump has backed.
Newhouse, likewise, faces a series of Republicans who have hammered him for his vote, including former NASCAR driver Jerrod Sessler, state Rep. Brad Klippert and vocal election denier Loren Culp, who has been endorsed by Trump.
A spokesperson for Herrera Beutler and Newhouse did not respond to CNN’s requests for comment for this story.
There is little public polling in either race, leaving many in the dark about what could happen. Adding to the uncertainty in both races is the fact that redistricting has shifted both districts slightly and Washington state’s open nonpartisan primary system that allows people to vote for any candidate, regardless of affiliation. The top two vote-getters in the primary move on to the general election, regardless of party.
If either Herrera Beutler or Newhouse moves on to the general election, it is likely they will keep their seat – both districts lean toward Republicans.
Herrera Beutler and Newhouse are not the only Republicans who backed impeachment on the ballot this month. In Michigan, voters will decide Tuesday between Rep. Peter Meijer and Trump-backed John Gibbs, a candidate who has made attacking Meijer’s vote central to his campaign.
And on August 16, voters in Wyoming will judge whether Rep. Liz Cheney – who voted to impeach the former President, has become a vocal critic of him and has served as vice chair of the House select committee investigating January 6 – deserves another term in Congress as she faces off against Trump-backed Harriet Hageman. For many Republicans, including Trump, Cheney represents their most highly sought-after incumbent to take down, given how vocal she has been in her opposition to Trump.
‘It is a mess’
Herrera Beutler was not shy about her impeachment vote at the time that she cast it, often taking to Twitter to both defend and explain the vote. During a tele-town hall shortly after the vote, when a voter told the congresswoman he was “very disappointed” in her vote, Herrera Beutler vividly described the “pounding” on the doors of the House chamber during the January 6 attack.
“I can see how someone would say his speech didn’t do it. But I don’t know a way to explain that he didn’t try and stop it,” she said.
And she and outside groups supporting her have spent millions to win her primary. Herrera Beutler’s campaign has spent $1.7 million on ads attacking Kent, the Republican seen as her most viable opponent, while Winning for Women Action Fund has spent another $1.7 million targeting Kent as “not who you think he is,” noting that he used to be a registered Democrat and voted for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in the 2016 presidential primary.
Kent has responded with $613,000 worth of ads, including one where he responds to the charges.
“Truth is, I’ve never voted Democrat in a general election,” he says. Kent has acknowledged voting for Sanders but said it was an effort to wreak havoc on the Democratic primary process to help Trump.
“I was so committed to helping him win that I voted for Bernie Sanders in the Democrat Primary because I believed he would be easier opponent for President Trump to defeat,” he writes on his website.
It is also possible that St. John, a conservative author and speaker, could spoil Kent’s chances of advancing. St. John has run just over $100,000 worth of television ads attacking Herrera Beutler, but the outside group Conservatives for a Stronger America has poured nearly $800,000 into the race with ads boosting St. John as “the real deal.” The ads likely cut into Kent’s conservative support, thereby helping Herrera Beutler.
Treva Mahar, vice chair of the Skamania County Republican Party, acknowledged the uncertainty in the race to unseat Herrera Beutler, in part because life in southern Washington seemed so removed from the impeachment vote months ago.
“Had she not voted to impeach Trump, it might not have generated this much action against her,” said Mahar, whose organization censured Herrera Beutler and endorsed Kent. “There were a lot of Republicans who felt like she was not really representing us well anyway, but she was the best option at that point. Now we have some better options.”
She added: “If Jamie Herrera Beutler wins this election, than the Republican Party needs to work harder and harder and harder… to oppose Republicans like her.”
There has been considerably less ad spending against Newhouse, who has spent just under $500,000 on ads for his own campaign and has received a considerable boost from Defending Main Street super PAC, a group that has aired over $800,000 in ads backing the Republican incumbent and highlighting his ties to agriculture, the major industry in the district.
Debra Manjarrez, chair of the Yakima County Republicans, said there would “absolutely not” have been a competitive primary if Newhouse had voted against impeachment and that the Republican congressman since 2015 would have “won with 60% of the vote” in November.
But Manjarrez, like others, worry that the fractured field is going to help Newhouse move on. While some Republicans have rallied around Trump and backed Culp, there are a number of candidates running as Trump-style conservatives.
“It is a mess,” she said.
Teagan Levine, chair of the Okanogan County Republican Party, said “emotions were hot” shortly after the impeachment vote and she had many people coming to her and saying, “We are done with Dan, we are done with Dan, find someone better.” The county party went on to censure Newhouse for the impeachment vote but has not endorsed a candidate in the primary.
As primary day has drawn closer, however, some of those same people who were ready to oust Newhouse aren’t as fired up by impeachment as they once were.
“Just this last week, I have had several people mention that Culp doesn’t have any agricultural experience, so how would he be able to help us with A, B and C,” Levine recalled. “(Emotions) were running high and now that voters need to check a box on a ballot, it’s a little bit harder for them to have a clearer choice because now they are taking into consideration” more than just the impeachment vote.