Southwest Washington Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler faced a perfect storm in her 2018 re-election bid.
The Battle Ground Republican had to contend with a controversial president in her party, a moderate and articulate Democratic challenger in Carolyn Long and an unprecedented amount of money in a race that brought national attention to a district that once was reliably liberal. In Carolyn Long, Democrats fielded a hard-working candidate who campaigned tirelessly, most notably in Cowlitz County.
But Herrera Beutler weathered the storm to win a fifth term. It was narrower than in her past three re-election races, but the challenge she overcame shows just how difficult it will be for Democrats to win the seat.
Put another way, if Democrats didn’t win back the 3rd District seat this year, with this candidate and with millions of dollars funneled into the race, just what would it take for them to win?
Democrats dominated the district from the 1950s until Herrera Beutler, riding a red wave, defeated Democrat Denny Heck to win the seat in 2010. Her winning margin continued to expand in 2012, 2014 and 2016.
Herrera Beutler’s victory this year was much tighter, with the incumbent getting 52 percent of the vote. Still, she won seven of the eight counties in the 3rd District, and Long only narrowly carried Clark County, which by far has the most voters in the district. Cowlitz County, the second largest electorate in the district, favored Herrera Beutler by a 10-point margin.
Several changes have been making the district a tougher place for Democrats to compete.
First, redistricting following the 2010 Census lopped off the northern and more liberal part of Thurston County, securing a safe blue seat for Heck in the 10th District but making the eight-county 3rd District more purple. Voters in the 3rd District chose Democrat Barack Obama for president in 2008 and 2012, but then opted for Republican Donald Trump in 2016.
Second, Cowlitz County has been drifting to the right for the last 30 years.
Washington U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, a powerful Democrat, lost Cowlitz County in 2016. This year, Republican Susan Hutchinson out-polled incumbent Sen. Maria Cantwell in Cowlitz County by 53 to 47 percent, even though Cantwell got 58 percent of the statewide vote.
Cowlitz voters also overwhelmingly rejected ballot initiatives regarding carbon fees, age and background restrictions on sales of semiautomatic weapons and law enforcement training.
There are many possible factors for Cowlitz County’s political shift. One likely factor is the county’s shrinking union presence and the accompanying economic decline. One-third of all jobs in Cowlitz County in 1970 were in manufacturing positions, the majority of which were union positions, according to the state Employment Security Department. Manufacturing dropped to one-sixth of the total jobs in 2016 and the area has struggled to replace heavy industrial jobs.
The county’s population also is aging, likely making it more conservative. The percentage of the county aged 65 and older has increased from about 13 percent in 2000 to nearly 19 percent in 2016, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Another possible factor is that national calls for more gun control in the wake of mass shootings have rallied Second Amendment advocates, who tend to vote Republican. This was evident in the surge in gun sales here and nationally when Barack Obama was elected president in 2008.
In 2014, Cowlitz County voted against Initiative 594, which required background checks for gun buyers, and supported Initiative 591, which would have prohibited government agencies from confiscating guns. (One exception to this trend is the county’s 2016 vote to approve Initiative 1491, which allows police and family members to temporarily block access to firearms for people who are violent or have mental illnesses.)
It is unknown if rising immigration tensions have driven Cowlitz County to the right, though they clearly played into Trump’s election in 2016. The percentage of Latino people in the county, however, has increased from about 4.6 percent in 2000 to about 9 percent in 2017, according to the Census Bureau.
Long worked hard to make inroads in Cowlitz County by campaigning extensively here and holding multiple 90-minute town halls over the past 12 months. Herrera Beutler often shied away from in-person appearances.
Long also collected a slew of endorsements and raised nearly $1 million more than Herrera Beutler as of Oct. 17, according to the Federal Election Commission.
In her concession Wednesday night, Long celebrated that she was the first Democrat to receive more than 40 percent of the vote against Herrera Beutler. But it still wasn’t enough to win.
The Democratic loss is likely to echo into the future: Supporters and the party may be less likely to invest campaign money here. And Long’s loss, close though it may have been, may have a chilling effect on potential candidates.
Now that’s a storm awaiting Democrats.