The Republican leader in Congress in greatest danger of losing in November, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., squared off in Spokane Wednesday night with educator-Democratic challenger Lisa Brown.
It was billed as a "discussion" with only limited rebuttals allowed.
But it pitted the polished sound bite specialist of the House Republican leadership against a biting critique from a Democratic challenger who believes McMorris Rodgers has lost touch with Eastern Washington.
"People are hopeful and optimistic -- It's a 20-year high," said McMorris Rodgers, who has ceaselessly touted Republicans' tax cut. "For hard working people in Eastern Washington, they have more in their pockets."
"It's almost as if she doesn't live in Eastern Washington," she said. "Health care is going up. Housing is going up." Citing the trillion dollar deficits, she added: "This Congress in the last 11 months (has pursued) the most fiscally irresponsible policies in the nation's history."
Hovering over the "discussion," sponsored by the Spokesman-Review and KHQ TV, were the policies of President Trump. The specific concern in the agriculture-dependent Inland Empire, Trump's tariffs and the trade war he has entered with China.
The trade war is "reckless," argued Brown, former chancellor of Washington State University-Spokane. "This trade war is devastating to Eastern Washington farmers and ranchers."
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McMorris Rodgers gave a carefully modulated answer.
She is opposed to "across the board" imposition of tariffs, she said, but: "I am proud that the President is taking action on China" (because of its unfair trade and intellectual property practices).
The 5th Congressional District hugs the Washington-Idaho border. Spokane is its major metropolis. The district includes a bevvy of major colleges (Washington State, Whitman, Eastern Washington, Gonzaga) but is conservative.
Trump carried the 5th. The district has not elected a Democrat since then-House Speaker Tom Foley last won reelection in 1992. It has, however, been susceptible to political "waves," the Democrats' in 1964, the Republicans in 1994.
What polling there is shows the district is split, pretty much down the middle, on Trump. McMorris Rodgers has to walk a line between appeasing the President's zealous supporters, and appealing to moderate voters.
The Russian intervention in America's 2016 election, and the Mueller investigation, elicited very different responses from incumbent and challenger.
"There have been a number of allegations (of Trump campaign Russia collusion) but no evidence," McMorris Rodgers said. She backed the Mueller probe, but said she wants it completed as quickly as possible. She took a veiled Trump-style swipe at the FBI and investigators for "abusing their power for political purposes."
Brown was direct. "We need to go forward (with the investigation) unimpeded.," she said. "We know Russia seriously interfered with our election and this Congress has taken no action to see that it doesn't happen again."
Asked about school shootings, and the AR-15 semi-automatic assault rifle used in Parkland, Lisa Brown said "complete background checks" and a waiting period on purchase is needed "(so) it doesn't happen again."
McMorris Rodgers answered, supplying no specifics, that the issue is that such weapons "do not get into the hands of those who should not have them . . . We should make sure these people do not slip between the cracks."
Eastern Washington is a place that wants to see its member of Congress.
As House Speaker, Tom Foley used to spend night after night at town meetings in small towns, taking questions for two hours and then sitting down with a high school student to help on a term paper.
Brown has hammered McMorris Rodgers, who prefers by-invitation coffees. She limits the time of occasional town halls, with a lottery on who gets to ask questions.
"I do more town halls than most members of Congress," McMorris Rodgers argued. Audience laughter at that response was audible.
Brown promised to live in the district and return home constantly, a difficult commute from Spokane.
McMorris Rodgers was smooth. She talked about immigration bills she has sponsored, not mentioning that they haven't gotten through the Republican-controlled House in which she is part of the leadership.
Although the tax cut has driven deficits to the $1 trillion level, McMorris Rodgers talked about "making tough decisions" and making "Congress live within its means," adding: "Fundamentally, the deficit is a big threat to this country."
Brown was engaging, drawing on her travels around the district, although she dodged a question of whether she supports liberal Democrats' Medicare-for-all demand. Litmus test liberals will be on her for that.
Before going to Wazzu, she was one Democrat who consistently won state house and State Senate elections in Eastern Washington.
The 5th District is not just Washington's most contested for Congress, but ranks up there nationally.