When Clark County Councilor John Blom decided to leave the Republican Party late last year, it was because he had grown tired of its demand for “ideological purity,” he said.
Blom had first become involved with the GOP while working on John McCain’s presidential election. He called it an early lesson in watching bipartisanship used to achieve a productive end. Blom doesn’t see that so much anymore, he said.
“The role of parties is to look at broad ideas and say, ‘Hey, if this person agrees with me 70 percent of the time, that means they’re with me twice as often as not,’ ” Blom said. “You can’t have every issue be a true litmus test.”
Factions of the GOP, which once considered itself a “big tent” party, are tugging in different directions. Tuesday’s primary election will reveal which kind of Republicans Clark County’s voters prefer. And if the political leanings of Southwest Washington continue to trend toward the center, the party’s future in the region may ultimately depend on whether that big tent stretches or tears.
Blom is on the primary election ballot as an independent candidate. He’s facing a challenger to the left, as well as one to the right — Karen Bowerman, who’s been formally endorsed by the Clark County Republican Party. Her husband, Earl Bowerman, also serves as chair of the county GOP.
Blom and Clark County Republican Party officials have clashed for years. The party voted to oppose Blom’s 2016 election bid. Last year, he criticized party leadership’s decision to elect a man with a criminal record — Dan Clark, convicted of sneaking into a 15-year-old girl’s bedroom and giving her alcohol — to a committee chair position. And in February, Blom accused the county GOP of narrowing its appeal when it invited Rep. Matt Shea, a controversial far-right lawmaker from Spokane, to emcee an event.
“I think the local party leadership tends to lean further right than a lot of people who consider themselves Republicans, who consistently vote Republican,” Blom said.
“I don’t think that’s unique to the Republican Party,” he added. “We see very extreme ideas being proposed on both sides, and I think that’s pulled people away from good governance.”
Earl Bowerman did not respond to The Columbian’s request for comment.
Room on the right
The Clark County Republican Party also snubbed Sen. Ann Rivers, a four-term incumbent in Washington’s 18th Legislative District.
The organization is instead backing her primary challenger, John Ley, a candidate who swings further to the right on some issues. It’s the only local race in which the county’s formal Republican Party is actively rooting against an incumbent Republican state lawmaker.
Rivers said in an email that the county GOP’s decision wasn’t a surprise, given her support of Blom. There’s room in the Republican Party for more than one faction, she wrote, and the views represented by the party’s organized leadership don’t necessarily represent average GOP voters.
“I think the rank-and-file precinct committee officers do try their best to be attentive to the needs of the communities they represent. Their work to try and help elect conservative-minded people is important,” Rivers wrote.
“But the Republican party as a whole is incredibly diverse and Republican voters don’t believe much in group think. That’s why you see Republicans who are willing to split-ticket vote, or be less conservative on certain issues.”
Southwest Washington is, on the whole, shifting away from the right and toward the center. The Cook Political Report now lists Washington’s 3rd Congressional District — encompassing counties Clark, Cowlitz, Lewis, Pacific, Wahkiakum, Skamania, Klickitat and part of Thurston — as a “Lean Republican” district, two steps toward the middle from the “Solid Republican” designation it held in 2016.
That tracks with a well-established pattern carrying out in suburban communities across the country. Past reliable GOP voters, especially white college-educated women, are dropping from the party, with many turned off by President Donald Trump’s divisive rhetoric and governing decisions.
However, that shift is not happening everywhere, and it’s not happening at the same rate. A strong base of right-leaning Republicans is still thriving in Clark County.
Rep. Vicki Kraft, a Republican representing Washington’s 17th Legislative District, said in an email to The Columbian last week that her district “still trends Republican overall.”
The other two lawmakers representing the 17th, Sen. Lynda Wilson and Rep. Paul Harris, are also Republicans. Both are moderates who won their last reelection campaigns by more than 10 percentage points.
In 2016, Kraft won by a margin of 3.3 percentage points. In 2018, that lead shrank, and she defeated her challenger by 1.5 percentage points, just 859 ballots. Since the midterms, Kraft’s positions have drifted further rightward.
She also does not believe in mandates that require people to wear face masks. That decision, Kraft said, should be left up to the individual.
“We need to remember, the number of positive cases does not equal the number of deaths, not even close,” Kraft said. “We need to be making decisions based on truth, not fear.”
Kraft’s positions drew approval from the county party, which formally endorsed her campaign on July 21.
The elephant in the room
U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, the five-term, moderate Republican from Battle Ground, has always walked a political tightrope when it comes to Trump.
Herrera Beutler keeps her distance from the polarizing president. She conspicuously did not vote for him in 2016, instead writing in the then-speaker of the house, moderate Republican Rep. Paul Ryan.
On the whole, Herrera Beutler’s district was friendlier to Trump, and he won Washington’s 3rd by 7.4 percentage points. But in Clark County, the district’s most populous county, Trump narrowly lost; Hillary Clinton beat him by 316 votes.
In a written statement to The Columbian last week, Herrera Beutler did not answer a question about whom she’ll vote for in the upcoming presidential race.
She said she doesn’t think Joe Biden, a former vice president and the presumptive Democratic nominee, would make a good president. She praised Trump for his hard-line stance against China, and credited his administration with an economy that pre-pandemic “was doing better than at any point the last 10 years.” But she stopped short of saying she’ll vote for Trump.
“This district did vote for Trump in 2016, so I think it’s important to acknowledge the desires of folks in this region,” Herrera Beutler said. “All that said, I wish he would stop tweeting. It’s not helping.”
Over the past four years, Herrera Beutler has repeated in interviews that she works to find common ground with Trump where she can and criticizes him when it’s deserved, just as she did when Democrat Barack Obama was president.
In a recent interview on a PBS talk show, “Firing Line with Margaret Hoover,” Herrera Beutler said she’s grown accustomed to gauging Trump’s comments on a “cringemeter.”
“Do I think the way the president presents his ideas or his opinions is appropriate? Not always,” Herrera Beutler told Hoover.
Despite her vocal criticism, the congresswoman sticks by Trump and her party when it matters most. She voted against advancing impeachment proceedings against the president at each step of the way in 2019.
And though her public messaging on the president is skeptical, Herrera Beutler’s voting record has actually swung to the right in recent years. According to the American Conservative Union Foundation, Herrera Beutler voted the party line 76 percent of the time in 2018, the most recent calculation available. That’s a shift away from the center, compared with her career average of 65.6 percent.
Questions about how candidates perceive Trump, and their political alignment with the president, will likely trickle far down the ballot this year. Kraft said she plans to vote for him, as she did in 2016.
“I will be voting again for President Trump and not (the) Democrat candidate,” Kraft said. “I don’t always care for what he says or does, but I do believe he wants to help America and Americans thrive and be successful.”
Rivers, like Herrera Beutler, declined to answer the question.
“Even as an elected official, I still get to vote in the privacy of my own home, just like everyone else,” Rivers said.