VANCOUVER, Wash. — At three official events throughout her southwest Washington district last week, Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler’s constituents bemoaned the lack of national unity seen during World War II, related troubling stories of new mothers struggling with insufficient health care and watched their children sing at a Veterans Day commemoration.
They did not ask the five-term Republican, a target of House Democrats’ campaign arm, about the ongoing impeachment inquiry.
That was partly due to the benign nature of the events — a recording of veterans’ oral histories, a roundtable with health officials on maternal mortality and a Veterans Day event at a public school.
But it also reflected what could be a 2020 strategy for Republicans seeking reelection in competitive districts like Herrera Beutler’s: Keep the focus off the president and on local issues. That could prove to be more difficult as the impeachment process ramps up.
“Republicans want this election to be about judges and the economy and not about Trump’s conduct in office,” said Alex Conant, a national Republican consultant who was Sen. Marco Rubio’s communications director during his 2016 presidential campaign. “If I’m a down-ballot Republican, I don’t want this election to become a referendum on Trump, especially in swing districts… Impeachment complicates that because it’s likely to be the biggest vote most members take next year.”
Close to home
Herrera Beutler framed her business-as-usual approach during the first stages of impeachment as one in line with her constituents’ expectations. They may take an interest in national issues like her vote against establishing an impeachment inquiry, she said, but they care more about issues that have greater impact on their daily lives.
“That’s kind of what people expect me to be about, are those issues that affect their well-being, their ability to raise their families,” she said. “You don’t see the inside-the-Beltway frenzy because we’re not inside the Beltway.”
Neither is most of America.
A survey of competitive House districts nationwide, conducted Oct. 3 by House Republicans’ campaign arm, showed 68 percent of voters found the impeachment effort overly political and thought Democrats should focus elsewhere.
Herrera Beutler’s likely Democratic opponent, Carolyn Long, a Washington State University-Vancouver professor of political science and constitutional law who was the party’s nominee last year, has criticized the incumbent’s position on impeachment and said she would have voted to proceed with inquiry.
But while Long has been more apt to wade into the issue, she hasn’t made it the centerpiece of her campaign either. Instead she’s also has focused on more local issues.
Mark Stephan, also a political science professor at WSU–Vancouver who said he and Long have set up boundaries to separate their university work from the campaign, said a vocal minority of voters in the district is calling for impeachment. A larger faction has accepted White House talking points that impeachment a politically motivated farce, he said.
To most, impeachment isn’t the major motivating force, he said.
Most voters “are either not exactly tuned to it closely, or… they’re just like, ‘I can’t make anything of this. This is all seems like a Washington, D.C., mess,’” Stephan said.
Washington’s 3rd District comprises seven counties in the state’s southwest corner and part of another county. Other than Vancouver’s Clark County, the district is largely rural.
Trump carried the district by 7 percentage points on the same day in 2016 that Herrera Beutler won by 21 points, though her margin dropped to 5 points in the 2018 midterms. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race Likely Republican.
“There’s still a very local element,” Stephan said of district voters’ priorities. “And in particular … that’s true for the more rural parts.”
Voters in such areas were attracted to both Obama and Trump because they offered a change, he said. They follow issues related to land use, timber extraction and infrastructure.
Herrera Beutler has touted a bipartisan law she sponsored to provide assistance to local governments for addressing pregnancy-related deaths. Long’s website lists 10 issues, including drug pricing, rural broadband access and clean air and water — but, other than immigration, none that are high on Trump’s agenda.
Herrera Beutler was first elected in 2010. Her most serious challenger since then was Long, who came within 17,000 votes of unseating her last year.
The evidence is mixed on whether Herrera Beutler or Long is likely to benefit from impeachment, with different national and local polls showing different results.
Public Policy Polling conducted a statewide poll for the liberal think tank Northwest Progressive Institute that showed 59 percent of voters in southwestern Washington and the Olympic Peninsula supported impeachment, versus 38 percent who were opposed. The survey covered almost all of Herrera Beutler’s district, as well as five other counties.
There’s plenty of enthusiasm for impeachment on the left, and many voters have been more politically engaged since Trump’s election.
“Hurry it up,” Joe Kear, vice-chair of the Democratic Party in Skamania County, home to Mt. St Helens, said of the impeachment process
Kear predicted Herrera Beutler would suffer electorally for waffling on the issue — she called for a fair investigation into the allegations, but then voted Oct. 31 against the resolution setting out a process to do so — and Long’s campaign has sought to use that against her.
“This entire process has shown that Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler is just another D.C. politician playing politics instead of standing for her convictions,” Long’s campaign manager, Abby Olmstead, wrote in a statement. “She hides from straight answers, she splits hairs, and tries to have it both ways.”
At a busy intersection in Vancouver, activists from MoveOn and Indivisible waved signs encouraging impeachment Sunday afternoon. One sign specifically called on Herrera Beutler to take a more active stance.
Most cars passed without acknowledging the group, but many honked in approval or waved back. Fewer responded with thumbs down or middle fingers up.
Janet Birgenheier, a leader of the local Indivisible chapter, said she’s newly politically active.
“I voted and that was about it,” Birgenheier said, describing her activity before Trump’s victory. “This is all new to me since he got elected.”
But impeachment is not the defining issue, even for Democrats. Skamania County Democrats recently asked their members to name their most important issues. Impeachment came in third, behind health care and climate change, Chairwoman Honna Sheffield said.
Republicans in Pacific, a coastal county of 20,000 residents that voted for Obama by double-digits both times he was on the ballot before flipping to Trump in 2016, feel the investigation is “a sham” and support Herrera Beutler’s distance.
‘Her own person’
“I do like that she’s not getting caught up in the drama of it,” Nansen Malin, the chairwoman of the Pacific County Republicans, said. “Jaime is her own person. There are times when she does support Trump and there’s times when she doesn’t, and she will err on the side of the district.”
Democrats have a different view of Herrera Beutler’s independence.
“She appears to be just working the party line,” Geni Donaghey, an activist with the local chapter of the liberal group MoveOn, said.
Herrera Beutler has sided with Trump on just under 80 percent of her votes since he took office, below the House Republican average of 94 percent, according to CQ Vote Studies.
Rory McShane, a Republican consultant based in Nevada, predicted Democrats would suffer a backlash, as Republicans did in 1998 after an effort to impeach President Bill Clinton. The perceived unfairness is likely spurring enthusiasm for Republicans running for other offices, he said.
“Where you’re used to having 10 volunteers at the party office, you’re going to have 30.”