SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) — In 1994, Democratic U.S. Rep. Tom Foley of eastern Washington state became the first House Speaker to lose an election bid since the Civil War. People in eastern Washington may be poised to oust another legislative leader this year.
Republican U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, who is fourth in House leadership and the highest-ranking woman in the GOP, faces a formidable challenge in the 5th Congressional District from Democrat Lisa Brown.
It is one of three U.S. House races in Washington state getting national attention as Democrats try to gain control of the chamber. Democrats also are mounting strong challenges for two other Republican-held districts – the 8th, which stretches from Seattle’s eastern suburbs across the Cascade Mountains and the 3rd, in southwestern Washington.
Congressional races in Washington state are usually predictable, with incumbents holding their seats with relative ease. Currently there are six Democrats and four Republicans in the state’s House delegation.
“I think it’s just a matter of everyone anticipating that 2018 would be a good year for Democrats,” said Travis Ridout, a political science professor at Washington State University. “A lot of high-quality Democratic candidates saw that they might have a good chance and decided to run this year.”
McMorris Rodgers got 49 percent of the vote, to Brown’s 45 percent, in August’s primary election, in which the top two finishers advanced to November regardless of party. But the outcome, with McMorris Rodgers below 50 percent, was close enough that Brown brought in nearly double what McMorris Rodgers raised in campaign funding in the third quarter.
McMorris Rodgers has raised $5.49 million in total, while Brown has raised $5.29 million, as of the Oct. 17 reporting period.
The $10.7 million raised by the two campaigns is unprecedented in the district. Many negative TV ads brand Brown as a tax-and-spend liberal, and McMorris Rodgers as a career politician who is in lockstep with President Trump.
McMorris Rodgers believes the country is on the right path, with unemployment low and business confidence high.
“What a change to two years ago,” she said during a recent debate. “Let’s not go back. Let’s keep striving to a positive future.”
She is the highest-ranking House Republican in a competitive race, and the contest is important as the Democrats seek to win control of the House. Plus, the district hasn’t seen a close election since Foley lost.
Brown contended the economy is not nearly as rosy as portrayed by Republicans, and that the district needs new leadership.
“Eastern Washington is ready for an independent advocate who will put our region’s interests over special interests and party priorities,” Brown said. “My opponent is a leader in a dysfunctional Congress.”
The 5th District is centered in Spokane, which has a metro population of more than 500,000 residents. The other roughly 200,000 residents of the district are scattered in small communities and rural areas. The district voted for President Donald Trump by 13 points in 2016.
The two candidates served in the state Legislature in the 1990s, where both were identified as rising stars.
McMorris Rodgers was elected to Congress in 2004, replacing George Nethercutt — the man who defeated Foley — who made a failed bid for a U.S. Senate seat.
Brown served as majority leader of the state Senate before leaving in 2013 to become chancellor of Washington State University Spokane.
McMorris Rodgers has voted with the president nearly exclusively, although she has broken with him on the tariff war with China. Many Washington farmers export products to China, and the tariffs are hurting their business.
Brown has pounded McMorris Rodgers for her 50-some votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act. McMorris Rodgers was the only one of four GOP House members from Washington who voted to repeal the law last year.
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.
Brown has produced ads showing people who say they were helped by the law.
Vice President Mike Pence has come to Spokane to stump for McMorris Rodgers. Former President Barack Obama has endorsed Brown.
McMorris Rodgers, 49, has spent virtually her entire adult life in politics.
After college she worked as a campaign manager and legislative aide for a member of the Washington statehouse, 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, 62, was first elected to the state Legislature in 1992 and moved to the state Senate in 1996. She was also an economics professor at Eastern Washington and Gonzaga universities before becoming chancellor of WSU Spokane.
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