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The House Race That Shows Why Republicans Collapsed in the Midterms

A self-inflicted wound in Washington is emblematic of how poor GOP choices led to unexpected Democratic victories.

Black-and-white photograph of Joe Kent and Marie Gluesenkamp Perez
Rachel La Corte / AP; The Atlantic

To understand why Republicans are on course to barely capture control of the House of Representatives in precedent-defying midterm elections, a district all the way on the other side of the country from Washington, D.C., might be the best place to look.

In Washington State’s Third District, the Democrat Marie Gluesenkamp Perez was projected over the weekend to defeat Joe Kent, capturing a district that Republicans have held since 2010. Democrats have sought for years to flip the Third, repeatedly spending piles of money to defeat Representative Jaime Herrera Beutler. But what they were unable to achieve, the GOP achieved for them this year: A Trump-backed primary challenge unseated Herrera Beutler and paved the way for a Democratic takeover.

The self-inflicted wound in Washington is emblematic of how poor Republican choices and MAGA purity tests hurt the party in races up and down the ticket, and cost them their chance at control of the Senate. Senate candidates like Blake Masters in Arizona, Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania, and Adam Laxalt in Nevada couldn’t beat vulnerable Democrats; in Georgia, Republican Herschel Walker trailed Senator Raphael Warnock, though that race is now headed to a runoff. Extreme candidates for secretary of state flopped, too. The Republican losses show the influence of the anti-MAGA majority.

The Third District sits in southwestern Washington, just north of Portland, Oregon. It’s a historically working-class district, once dominated by timber and fishing, and sits apart from the Democratic strongholds around Seattle and Tacoma. Living there is attractive for tax reasons: You can reside in Washington, with no income tax, and shop over the border in Oregon, with no sales tax. The Cook Political Report rates it as four points more Republican than the U.S. overall. Barack Obama carried the district in the 2008 presidential election, but no Democratic presidential candidate has won it since.

In districts like this one, outside the Seattle sphere, “there’s kind of a built-in, inherent Republicanism, a low-key Republicanism built on a perception that Democrats don’t care and they don’t need to care,” Kevin Pirch, a political-science professor at Eastern Washington University, told me this summer.

But as the Portland area expands, Democrats have eyed the district jealously, seeing in it the sort of suburbanizing tracts that have become more favorable to the party. The party has put its money where its mouth is and ended up with little more than a depleted wallet. Herrera Beutler won the seat by six percentage points in 2010, and no Democrat came close to that for years.

Herrera Beutler is a moderate Republican but not aggressively centrist, and a protégé of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy. In 2018, with expectations of a backlash against then-President Donald Trump in the midterms, Democrats made the district a top target and put muscle behind Carolyn Long, a young political scientist, to win the race. She far outraised Herrera Beutler but ended up a little more than five points back in November—the best Democratic showing in years. Two years later, Long ran again and once again raised money prolifically, but then ended up 13 points back.

Two months after the polls closed, Trump incited a riot that sacked the U.S. Capitol as Congress was supposed to be certifying Joe Biden’s victory over him. Herrera Beutler was appalled. She revealed that McCarthy had begged Trump in vain to intervene as the mob stormed the Capitol, and was one of 10 Republicans to vote to impeach Trump. That turned her into a target for the former president’s vengeance. In her reelection campaign, Herrera Beutler tried to steer a narrow path, never apologizing for her vote but focusing on local issues rather than making it a central part of her identity, in the manner of Representatives Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger.

She ended up just as toast as Cheney and Kinzinger. Trump backed a primary challenge by Joe Kent, a lantern-jawed former Green Beret. Washington holds nonpartisan primaries—the top two candidates advance—and in August, Herrera Beutler came in third, just half a percentage point or about 1,000 votes behind Kent. Gluesenkamp Perez, a little-known Democrat, took 31 percent of the vote, but she was still a heavy underdog: The assumption was that Republicans would coalesce around Kent.

But Kent, despite his sparkling résumé, was vulnerable because of the company he keeps and the positions he holds. He gave an interview to a Nazi sympathizer and was friendly with Nick Fuentes, an infamous white-supremacist leader who participated in the racist 2017 melee in Charlottesville, Virginia; his campaign paid thousands of dollars to a Proud Boy.

Before the election, conventional wisdom held that candidates like Kent would probably be able to win despite these liabilities, especially in a solidly Republican district like the Third. FiveThirtyEight’s model gave Kent a 98-in-100 chance at victory on the eve of the election. But with most of the vote in, Gluesenkamp Perez leads by roughly 1.5 points. (Like clockwork, Kent is crying fraud, without any evidence.)

Kent’s weaknesses don’t take away from Gluesenkamp Perez’s accomplishment. She seems to have been the perfect Democrat to win the district. She has a bit of the magic John Fetterman dust many in her party will soon be seeking: She’s young (in her mid-30s) and owns an auto-body shop with her husband. She ran in large part on abortion rights, but is also a gun owner who opposes an assault-weapons ban.

Soon she’ll be a U.S. representative too. Voters turned out to be repulsed enough by MAGA candidates who question elections and pal around with racists that they were willing to give a chance to the right alternative. Democrats alone couldn’t flip seats like Washington’s Third, but with the help of Trump and the most extreme primary voters in the area, they were finally able to make it happen.