WASHINGTON (AP) — A congressional candidate whose compelling personal story of military valor and unfathomable loss helped him win former President Donald Trump’s support has connections to right-wing extremists, including a campaign consultant who was a member of the Proud Boys.
Republican Joe Kent, who is challenging U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler in Washington state in the Aug. 2 primary, has also courted prominent white nationalists and posed recently for a photograph with a media personality who has previously described Adolf Hitler as a “complicated historical figure” who “many people misunderstand.”
An Associated Press review of internet postings, court records and campaign finance disclosures depict a candidate with a more complicated biography than the compelling personal story that turned the 42-year-old Kent into a favorite of conservative media.
Square-jawed with wavy black hair, the former Green Beret served 11 combat deployments before retiring to join the CIA. He also endured unspeakable tragedy: His wife, Shannon, a Navy cryptologist, was killed by a suicide bomber in 2019 in Syria, leaving him to raise their two young sons alone.
Taken broadly, Kent’s recent relationships and activities reinforce concerns about the GOP’s ties to extremist groups. The House committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol has drawn attention to the role such organizations, particularly the Proud Boys, played in the effort to disrupt the peaceful transfer of power after Trump’s reelection loss in 2020.
“Many (Republican) politicians play footsie with it. Kent is just unabashed,” said Dave Neiwert, an author and journalist who has covered right-wing extremism in the Pacific Northwest for decades
Kent’s campaign declined to make him available for an interview.
“Joe Kent’s platform of inclusive populism rejects racism and bigotry and invites all Americans to support his aggressive America First agenda,” Matt Braynard, a Kent strategist, said in a statement.
Ahead of the final slate of primaries that unfold in August, Kent is not the only House candidate worrying some Republicans.
In Michigan, John Gibbs, a former Trump administration official challenging Republican Rep. Peter Meijer, once spread false claims that Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign chairman participated in a satanic ritual.
In New York, Carl Paladino, a GOP House candidate, praised Hitler last year as “the kind of leader we need today.” And former Trump administration official Max Miller, the Republican nominee for an Ohio congressional seat, was accused of physical abuse by his ex-girlfriend. Miller denies the allegations.
But of those soon facing elections, Kent stands out for the breadth of his ties to a deep-seated extremist fringe that has long existed in the Pacific Northwest.
Campaign finance disclosures reveal Kent recently paid $11,375 for “consulting” over the past four months to Graham Jorgensen, who was identified as a Proud Boy in a law enforcement report and was charged with cyber stalking his ex-girlfriend in 2018. The charges were dismissed. But a judge in Vancouver, Washington, issued an order of protection requiring Jorgensen to stay away from her, records show.
Kent’s campaign said Jorgensen was a low-level worker and denied he has any current affiliation with “outside organizations.” They declined to make Jorgensen available for an interview.
Kent is also a close political ally of Joey Gibson, the founder of the Christian nationalist group Patriot Prayer. Gibson has organized demonstrations in Portland, as well as the city’s Washington state suburbs, where he and his followers have clashed with left-wing groups. Many of the demonstrations were coordinated with the Proud Boys.
The often violent rallies drew anti-government activists, extremists as well as white supremacists to unite in common cause — namely fighting left-wing activists.
Photos from the events archived online demonstrate how in some cases Kent’s allies have associated with people who have expressed white supremacist views. In numerous instances, Gibson as well as Jorgensen, the Proud Boy on Kent’s payroll, were recorded standing next to Jacob Von Ott, who has posted racist and antisemitic views online.
Von Ott did not respond to a request for comment, but he has previously denied that he’s a white supremacist.
Gibson spoke at a Kent fundraiser last year. When it was Kent’s turn to speak at the event, he praised Gibson, explaining that he “defended this community when our community was under assault from antifa.” Gibson was acquitted last week on felony riot charges after an altercation with left-wing activists at a Portland bar
Kent’s ties to extremism aren’t limited to the Pacific Northwest.
Braynard, one of Kent’s top advisers, was the architect of a Washington, D.C., rally last year that sought to build sympathy for those arrested during the insurrection by rebranding them as “political prisoners.” Kent spoke at the rally.
And his candidacy is endorsed by far-right Arizona state lawmaker Wendy Rogers, who has identified herself as a member of the Oath Keepers, a far-right militia group that played an outsize role in the storming of the U.S. Capitol.
Kent has also sought support from figures associated with the white nationalist “Groyper” movement led by Nick Fuentes, an internet personality who has promoted white supremacist beliefs and was at the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol.
Kent has acknowledged that a political consultant set up a call early in his campaign that Fuentes was part of, where expanding his campaign’s reach on social media was discussed. But he denied that there was any sort of formal arrangement and distanced himself from Fuentes in March after their affiliation became broadly known, tweeting that he did not want “want Fuentes’s endorsement due his focus on race/religion.”
After the rebuke, however, Kent appeared on a far-right YouTube channel where he echoed sentiments similar to those held by many white nationalists.
“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with there being a white people special interest group,” Kent said during an interview hosted by a group called the American Populist Union.
In April, Kent was photographed at a fundraiser giving a thumbs-up with Greyson Arnold, who identifies as a “Christian American Nationalist.” Like Fuentes, Arnold was also at the U.S. Capitol during the insurrection.
Arnold has shared memes online that refer to Nazis as a “pure race” and has called Hitler a “complicated” and “misunderstood” historical figure. He did not respond to an email seeking comment.
Associated Press writer Eric Tucker contributed to this report.