Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers has represented Eastern Washington in Congress for 14 years and has never had a close election.
This year could be different. She’s facing a well-known, well-funded challenger with a long history in the district. And the leader of McMorris Rodgers’ party, President Donald Trump, is the least popular president through his first two years since at least World War II.
Every Republican-held seat counts equally in the Democratic push to win the House of Representatives, but, psychologically at least, Washington’s 5th Congressional District might count a bit more. McMorris Rodgers is the fourth-ranking Republican in the House, and the highest-ranking House Republican in a competitive race.
Republicans have held the seat since 1994, when they knocked off a member of the Democrats’ top brass, Speaker of the House Tom Foley. The district hasn’t seen a close election since.
This year, McMorris Rodgers and her Democratic challenger, Lisa Brown, are running on themes similar to other competitive races across the country. The ever-present president may be what’s helped make the race competitive, but he’s not what the candidates want to talk about.
If D.C. pundits are focused on impeachment and Russia, Brown would rather talk about health care in Eastern Washington. If the president is leading “build the wall,” chants, McMorris Rodgers might agree, but she’d rather talk about veterans and Spokane County’s Fairchild Air Force Base.
McMorris Rodgers has voted with Trump 98 percent of the time and can’t name a single legislative action she’s taken to challenge the president.
Brown says she will “push back on the president when it’s appropriate, but would also work with the administration if they are doing things that were valuable for Eastern Washington.”
President “sets the table” for the midterms
The simple fact of having a Republican in the White House — any Republican — makes this the “best Democratic House environment since 2008,” said Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a nonpartisan political analysis newsletter published by the University of Virginia.
The president’s party has lost House seats in 36 of the 39 midterm elections since the Civil War.
The fact that Trump is historically unpopular — his approval rating hovers in the low 40s and has never risen above 50 — only bolsters Democratic chances.
“The president sort of sets the table for the midterm elections and he’s a polarizing president whose approval rating is negative, so that helps open the door for Democrats,” Kondik said. “If Trump were at 55 percent approval nationally, Republican prospects in the House would be better.”
The 5th Congressional District is more conservative than the country as a whole, and way more conservative than Washington as a whole. The district voted for Trump by 13 percentage points in 2016. But even in the 5th, limited public polling points to dissatisfaction with the president. Trump’s approval rating in the district was 49 percent in one April poll, and 45 percent in another.
Brown remains an underdog in the race.
McMorris Rodgers garnered 49 percent of the primary vote to Brown’s 45 percent in August’s primary election. But the remaining votes — about 5 percent of the total — went to other Republicans and a candidate from the “Trump Populist Party.” Most of those remaining votes could be reasonably assumed to fall to McMorris Rodgers in the general election.
McMorris Rodgers has been in politics virtually her entire career. After college she worked as a campaign manager and legislative aide for a member of the Washington House of Representatives, ultimately being appointed to his seat when he moved to the state Senate.
She served in the Washington House from 1994 through 2004, when she was elected to Congress.
Brown is no stranger to politics herself. She was first elected to the state House of Representatives in 1992 and moved to the state Senate in 1996. She ultimately served as Senate majority leader for eight years until she left in 2013 to become chancellor of Washington State University Spokane.
Fundraising records set
Both candidates have smashed all previous fundraising marks for the 5th District and the election will be among the most expensive in state history. McMorris Rodgers has raised about $5 million (after never raising more than $3.3 million in any prior campaign) while Brown has nearly matched her, bringing in about $4.6 million.
But Brown’s financial support has surged since the primary. She raised $2.2 million in the third quarter of this year, compared to just $1.3 million for McMorris Rodgers in the same period. McMorris Rodgers has raised about $1.8 million from business-aligned political-action committees, while Brown has eschewed corporate PAC money.
Brown, while willing to talk about the Russia investigation or the president’s finances, would much rather talk about health care.
She has run at least 11 Facebook ads since the beginning of October, hammering McMorris Rodgers for her repeated votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act (ACA).
Republicans fought tooth and nail for nearly a decade to repeal President Barack Obama’s signature health-care law, but McMorris Rodgers was the sole member of Washington’s congressional delegation — including three other Republicans — who voted to repeal the law last year.
Long a millstone around Democrats’ necks, the politics of the health-care law have shifted. About 86,000 people in the 5th District have federally subsidized insurance from the ACA, and the rate of people without health insurance in the district has fallen from more than 16 percent in 2013 to less than 6 percent in 2016, the second-biggest drop of the state’s 10 congressional districts.
Brown’s ads showcase people who say they were helped by the law, while McMorris Rodgers won’t say if she’d still like to see it repealed.
McMorris Rodgers is eager to talk about her work improving care for kids with disabilities or in getting more medical residents to move to the district. Asked three times whether she’d like to take another shot at repealing the ACA, McMorris Rodgers noted that they’ve repealed parts of the law, but she never answered the question.
“I am committed to making sure that people have access to quality and affordable health care,” she said. “We’re just going to have to continue to work through it.”
Breaking with Trump on tariffs
The 5th District is home to Washington State University and to Spokane, Washington’s second-largest city, but agriculture remains central to the district’s identity and economy.
Wheat is a nearly $700 million-a-year industry in Washington, and most of it comes from the 5th District. Around 90 percent of that wheat is exported, most of it to Asia.
Trump’s escalating tariff and trade wars are one of the few issues on which McMorris Rodgers has differed with the president’s agenda.
The president’s tariffs have led to retaliatory tariffs, including an announced 25 percent tariff on wheat exports to China.
“I’ve read that Trump trade officials suggest that parts of the economy hurt by the Chinese tariffs are going to have to weather the storm for the greater good,” said Marci Green, president of the Washington Association of Wheat Growers. “I don’t think those people really understand how precarious things are in farm country.”
McMorris Rodgers opposes Trump’s “across-the-board tariffs” but credits the president for being tough on China.
“Farmers are concerned, but they’re also encouraged that we’re renegotiating some of these trade agreements,” McMorris Rodgers said. But while she opposes the president’s tariffs, she doesn’t necessarily think Congress should do anything about it.
She said she’s “generally supportive of taking a look” at legislation that would give Congress a say over tariffs, but was no more committal than that. And such legislation has gone nowhere in the Republican-controlled Congress.
Brown says the issue is indicative of McMorris Rodgers’ reluctance to push back against the president.
“Congress has the constitutional right to impose tariffs,” Brown said, “and has deferred that right to the administration.”