Washington’s Primary Could Dethrone Trump’s Kingmaking Power

Washington’s Primary Could Dethrone Trump’s Kingmaking Power

“When [Herrera Butler and Newhouse] cast their vote to impeach President Trump, they knew that compared to other people nationwide, they had an electoral system that let them vote their conscience,” said Alex Hayes, a longtime GOP strategist in Washington state.

In Washington, D.C., voters of any party can vote for whomever they want. The top two vote-getters — no matter their party — go on to the general election. In closed primaries, by contrast, the parties run the elections and permit only their own registered voters to cast ballots, with the winner going on to face the opposing party’s choice in the general election.

Despite the headwinds Herrera Beutler and Newhouse face from within their own party, both still have strong shots at advancing to the general election because their fate isn’t controlled solely by the wrath of Trump’s MAGA faithful. Newhouse and Herrera Beutler can make up for the loss of the conservative base by drawing independent and possibly even Democratic voteS. Even if they finish second in their primaries, they’ll still progress to the general — where incumbents have a better chance of winning.

“It forces you as a candidate to compete as if you’re running in a general election, because the August primary is not just your voters,” said Washington state Republican party chairman Caleb Heimlich. “It’s not just Republicans choosing their favorite Republican — it’s all voters voting.”

The knock on closed primaries is that often a minority of a party’s voters have undue power to nominate candidates who are too extreme to be viable in a general election. The open primary system gives a voice to a greater number of voters in a state and frees candidates from strict adherence to national party doctrine. Many proponents say open primaries can soften political polarization and give more power to political minorities.

Forty-two percent of Americans in 2021 identified as independents (compared to 29 percent as Democrats and 27 percent as Republicans), according to Gallup. Those independent voters, however, often are left out of the selection process for general election candidates because they are ineligible to participate in closed primaries. Redistricting, meanwhile, has taken most of the “swing” out of general elections. Of 435 House districts in America, only 30 are actually considered competitive in this year’s November election.

“A large population of voters who are disenfranchised in other systems — swing voters, people that aren’t part of the political party — are part of the Washington State primary,” said Hayes, adding that candidates are incentivized to reach out to every voter in their district, not just their base. “It’s a process that is much more anchored to the actual opinion of voters in your community.”

Washington’s open primary system dates back to 2004, but the state has led the way in America’s primary elections for more than a century. In 1907, Washington was the first state to allow voters to choose party nominees for the general election. In 1935, Washington was also the first to switch to a “blanket primary” system, where voters could vote across party lines in the primary. In 2000, open primaries took a hit when the Supreme Court declared California’s “jungle primary” unconstitutional on the grounds that it violated political parties’ right to free association with others of similar beliefs.

This began four years of turmoil, as Washington state tried to land on a new, constitutionally acceptable primary system. The nonpartisan top-two open primary, where voters are not registered in a party and candidates can identify politically in their candidate biographies, but are not nominated by the party, was the solution — and was approved by 60 percent of voters in 2004. California and Alaska adopted similar models in 2010 and 2020, respectively. (In Alaska, the top four candidates advance.) Louisiana has a modified open primary system, where all the candidates run in the general election, and if one does not receive more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two advance to a runoff.

“When there is a political party-only primary, the Democrats tend to go as far left as they can to try to win over the base, and the Republicans go far right. Then they scramble back to the middle for the general,” Sam Reed, who oversaw the development and passage of the open primary system in the early 2000s, said. “Well, that was baloney. And so we wanted to get rid of that.”

District 3, the home of Herrera Beutler, is one of the swingiest districts in the state. In its largest city, Vancouver (not the one in Canada), candidates have to woo liberals who moved north from Portland, Ore. in search of cheaper mortgages as well as the members of the far-right group Patriot Prayer. When Herrera Beutler was elected in 2010, she became the first Republican to represent the district in a decade, and the first-ever Hispanic to represent Washington state in Congress.

Her most well-known challenger is Trump-endorsed Joe Kent, a retired Army vet and Fox News regular whose flannel shirts and chiseled features are straight out of central casting. Kent, however, has struggled to thread the needle between committed conservative and far-right nationalist, distancing himself from alleged connections to white supremacists and Nazism, while proudly touting his Trump endorsement and repeating the false claim that the 2020 election was fraudulent.

The Kent campaign is banking that the district’s Democrats will stick with their lone candidate instead of backing Herrera Beutler and that the Republican base will follow Kent, leaving Herrera Beutler out of the running.

“I think there’s a strong conservative base and also a strong anti-establishment base in this district,” a Kent spokesman told POLITICO. “In the primaries, this district tends to go to non-establishment candidates.”

But there are multiple challengers from Herrera Beutler’s right and that could split the conservative vote. Conservative podcaster and public speaker Heidi St. John was lagging in the race until mid-July when a Massachusetts-based super PAC backing her dumped more than $700,000 into the race.

In addition to traditional issues like the military and jobs, St. John and Kent’s campaign websites highlight an array of national, Trump-backed Republican talking points — from election fraud to critical race theory. Herrera Beutler’s issues include a more local bent, like issues facing the salmon industry and the region’s opioid crisis.

“The strategy hasn’t changed [since 2020]; she’s still focusing on local issues,” campaign spokesperson Craig Wheeler said, adding that a lot of Herrera Beutler’s core issues in this race — like maternal health or inflation — affect many people, regardless of party. “She’s not a national attention seeker, not running to be a talking head on any cable news network.”

Newhouse, meanwhile, is running in a much more conservative district where he regularly wins with more than 60 percent of the vote. He led Trump’s reelection committee in Washington state in 2020, but after January 6 he broke with the former President and ultimately voted for impeachment.

He now has a half dozen challengers, which bodes well for him: That many challengers may split the far-right conservative vote in his district and allow him to still take first or second in the primary. Newhouse has battled a fellow Republican in the general election before. In 2014, fellow Republican Clint Didier did better than Newhouse in the primary, but Newhouse got more of the independent and Democratic votes in the general election to beat Didier by a hair.

Newhouse’s strongest challenger this year is Loren Culp, a well-known politician and a former police chief who has run for governor multiple times. Culp has amassed strong conservative Republican support in the process. He has Trump’s endorsement in this primary, but his fundraising has lagged. As long as Newhouse makes it through the primary, though, he has a better shot at a general election win — he already has a proven track record of doing well with swing voters and Democrats in the general.

“[Voters in this system] really can vote for the person and not the party — the person who they feel is the best qualified for the office, the person who best represents them — and not be restricted by party,” said Reed. “I really expect this to keep moving as a trend to be adopted around the country.”

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