Are the two districts most directly facing each other across the Columbia, the third congressional districts of Washington and Oregon, really the same kind of district – only on opposite sides?
Control of the U.S. House next year could hinge on the answer.
Washington’s Congressional District 3, site of a dramatic primary election and possibly a dramatic general election, is ranked by national analysts as a solid Republican district. That’s the same rank as the district facing it most directly across the Columbia River, Oregon’s 3rd district, a solidly blue – Democratic – district.
The partisanship of Oregon’s 3rd district is undisputed. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, one of the more liberal members of the House, has been reliably re-elected since his first term in 1996. He has scored upwards of 70% of the vote in every general election since 2004, and more than two-thirds before that. Also, state legislators from the district are overwhelmingly Democrats, and the 3rd district votes reliably and overwhelmingly for Democrats for major office.
That’s a “safe” Democratic district, much as Oregon’s 2nd Congressional District, to the east over the Cascades, is “safe” Republican.
Drive one of the bridges north across the Columbia, and you enter Washington’s 3rd District, which under current districting runs a few miles east into Skamania County, north not quite to Olympia, and west to the Pacific. About two-thirds of its people live in Clark County, anchored by Vancouver. Nationally, it is described as “solid Republican” by the Cook Political Report and Inside Elections and “likely Republican” by Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball.
It has been represented for the last dozen years by Republican Jaime Herrera Beutler, a relatively moderate Republican who has worked more on local and regional concerns than on national headlines. Her one significant entry into national controversy, a vote in favor of impeaching then-President Donald Trump, was the pivot behind her primary loss this month. Before her election in 2010, the 3rd district was represented by a Democrat, Brian Baird; for four years before that by Republican Linda Smith, but in the 32 years before her by three Democrats. The district historically swings between the parties.
Herrera Beutler’s general election track record is far different from Blumenauer’s. In 2020, she received 56.4% of the vote, and in 2018 she won with 52.7% – clear wins, but far from landslide territory. And those more recent numbers marked a slide from the elections just before, when she topped 60% in 2016 and 2014. On the state legislative front, the four legislative districts representing Clark County long have had a Republican lean, but Democrats usually have won a significant portion of the seats.
Another useful measure of partisan lean is the presidential vote. Washington’s 3rd district has been remarkably close in its presidential vote for decades. In modern times, the vote percentage peak in the district was hit by Ronald Reagan in 1984 with a modest 52% (amid a national landslide), and the next best since was won by Democrat Barack Obama in 2008. The district did back Republican Trump, but in 2020 he received 51%, winning by four points – no massive margin. (In Oregon’s 3rd, Democrat Joe Biden won by 51 points.)
Altogether, Washington’s 3rd has the look of a Republican lean, but short of a lock.
That’s the backdrop for the upcoming contest between new nominees Republican Joe Kent, who beat Herrera Beutler, and Democrat Marie Perez.
He starts with more money and name identification while she had no major primary contest to raise money. But money is unlikely to decide this race: Millions probably will pour in on both sides. Kent has a compelling story: He was a decorated green beret with years of active service, and his wife died in Syria from an arttack by a suicide bomber. But he also has baggage, including extensive and tight connections to numerous extremist, Christian nationalist and violent groups, and his endorsement by Trump came after hard-line support for the former president and his claims about the 2020 election. Perez is a lower-profile figure.
Former Republican U.S. Representative Tom Davis, a veteran national congressional campaign strategist, remarked about Kent, “The problem for Republicans is you can probably get away with this in 50 districts in the country. But this does not strike me as the kind of district where you don’t pay a price.”
Dave Wasserman of the Cook Political Report has shifted Washington’s 3rd from solid Republican to lean Republican and added that Herrera-Beutler “didn’t offer any support for Kent, who ran with endorsements from Donald Trump, Rep. Matt Gaetz and Michael Flynn and has bashed Kevin McCarthy as part of the ‘establishment.’ And Kent’s far right politics could put the Trump +4 suburban Portland seat in play in November.”
The reputable FiveThirtyEight aggregate site has listed the district as likely Republican – 97 chances out of 100 – but the number has edged down as of Aug. 14 to 90, in the “deluxe” estimate; in the polls-only version, Kent’s chances are rated at 73, seriously competitive.
This may be a close-fought race, unlike anything Oregon’s 3rd has seen in generations. Democrats now have a serious shot at a pickup here, if they make the effort.
This column originally appeared in the Oregon Capital Chronicle.