Before the August primary in Washington, the race for Congress in the southwest corner of the state was not attracting national attention.
There were a couple of good reasons for that. Trump won the state’s 3rd Congressional District by seven points, and incumbent Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler had been leading primary opponents by 20-point margins since 2012, thanks largely to a redistricting negotiation friendly to Republicans. Though Democrats were thirsty for a big blue wave to wash all Republicans out of Washington, Herrera Beutler looked relatively safe.
But then Carolyn Long, a political science professor at Washington State University - Vancouver, consolidated the Democratic vote in a crowded field and came within seven points of tying the incumbent. When you combine the votes from all the candidates, Republicans only maintain a two-point lead in the district—51 to 49.
Given this impressive showing from a rookie candidate, nonpartisan analysts at The Cook Report shifted their rating from “likely Republican” to “lean Republican.”
We now have a race on our hands.
And yet, despite all her success, Long does not know if her husband, Kevin, will vote for her. They’ve been married 23 years, and they dated for 11 years before that, but still his vote is up in the air. The problem here is pretty straightforward: she’s a Democrat running for Congress, and he’s a longtime Republican who voted for Trump.
How the hell does that work?
Though they’ve always had deep and abiding differences on the issues, Long tells me they don’t refrain from talking politics at the dinner table. They’re able to have discussions without stabbing each other in the eyes with forks because they both share the same “values and beliefs,” Long says.
That kind of mutual understanding allows them to navigate policy disagreements in a civilized fashion, no doubt setting a good example for their daughter, a 13-year-old who calls herself a “Dema-publican” or a “Republi-crat” depending on which parent she’s happiest with in the moment.
Humor seems to play a vital role in the marriage, too. When she asked Kevin for his vote after announcing her run for office, he said he’d have to see her platform first.
Still, election night 2016 was a rough one for the Long household. Since the beginning of Trump’s campaign, she’d been making the argument that Trump didn’t actually represent Republican values, and that the country needed to elect someone who was actually qualified to be President. He had argued that Trump would bring a businessman’s sensibility to the White House and that his fiscal policy would benefit all Americans. On Nov. 7 they watched the returns in separate rooms.
“The best way to describe that night is to say that he went to bed before I did,” Long says. “The next morning he asked how I was doing because he knew how devastated I was. We had a $1,000 bet on the line—he bet Trump was going to win and I bet Hillary was going to win. He forgave that debt.”
While this purple marriage might seem a little difficult to understand for some people—or completely unfathomable for certain staff writers at The Stranger—it’s not exactly a drawback for a candidate running on a message of civility and accountability in a purple district like Washington’s 3rd.
“When I speak about bipartisanship and cooperation, I like to tell people I know it can be done,” Long says. “I reach across the aisle every time I ask my husband to pass the salt.”
Long's bipartisan bonafides don’t start and stop at the dinner table.
She’s on unpaid leave at WSU now that she’s campaigning for Congress, but when she’s in the classroom she teaches courses on constitutional law, civil liberties, judicial process, Congress, public policy, and “civility in politics.”
She developed her civility class into a community program in Vancouver called the Initiative for Public Deliberation, which aims to “strengthen democratic government by replacing rigid partisanship with listening and conversation.” Long won an Iris award, which honors “women in the community who have promoted civil discourse, teamwork, collaboration, and cooperation.”
The program sounds extremely useful in a country where most people walk around in completely different worlds. Student organizers set up policy forums on issues that hit close to home in the district—affordable housing, homelessness, the opioid epidemic. Members of the community with different political backgrounds show up, sit in small groups, and participate in student-moderated discussions. Long says the goal of the discussions isn’t to win, but rather to get everyone in the group to understand where everybody else is coming from.
Long argues that locating someone’s personal stake in the issue and addressing those concerns can lead to more productive discussions. “If you start a conversation about climate change by saying ‘I believe in climate change and you don’t,’ you won’t get anywhere,” Long says. “So what I do is open up that conversation by talking about crop yields in eastern Washington, the increase of forest fires in the Pacific Northwest, and flooding in the Chehalis Basin.”
This strategy informs her discussions with voters at town halls, which have been one of the primary drivers of her campaign. She’s held 35 public meetings across the district, including at least three in every county. Long estimates she’s talked to 2,800 voters in this way and says she gets a “tremendously positive response” for just being willing to go out there in the first place.
She lays out her policies at these town halls, often framing her positions in bipartisan terms. She thinks striving for universal health care is a good idea, but she wants to start by shoring up Obamacare because “there are Republicans who want to stabilize the marketplace.” On impeachment, she’s waiting to see what Robert Mueller’s team produces “as any prudent politician” would.
Even with a red Senate and an orange Oval Office, Long thinks Congress can pass a clean DREAM Act that Trump would have to sign “because it’s endorsed by majorities in both Houses.” She also thinks the two parties can work together on infrastructure and on criminal justice reform "writ large."
As for the larger issue of “fixing Congress,” Long says the only solution is to elect different kinds of people: "Right now we elect people who are more extreme than the people who they’re replacing. We need to elect people who are more collaborative and cooperative.”
Long’s style and message seem to be going over well with a lot of local Democrats, and even some Republicans.
“You only have to see her once to realize she has a lot of strength and energizing ability,” says Chris Fischer, chair of the Klickitat County Democrats. “[Long’s] got the ability to stay out of the anger, stay focused on the issues, stay positive. There’s no ego. She’s not about butting heads. She’s something new and different.”
Long even attracted the support of Kevin Alvord, 46, the former president of the Vancouver Lions Club and board member of Salmon Creek Little League.
Alvord describes himself as a conservative who has voted for Herrera Beutler in the past. But about eight months ago a couple Long canvassers stopped by his house and started talking about “bringing civility back to politics.” He expressed interest and asked if Long would talk to the Lions Club. Long accepted the invitation.
“The minute you meet the lady you can tell she’s just real good, an outstanding citizen willing to connect with people,” Alvord said. Her eagerness to take the time to speak to the club and her commitment to civility in politics has convinced him to “very much lean toward” voting for her.
“I think we have a couple of pretty good candidates overall that are level-headed people, but I feel like Carolyn is a lot more willing to budge on some of her views than Herrera Beutler,” Alvord said. “I’m looking for someone on either side that’s willing to budge, and Long comes off as that person.”
Alvord does not appear to be the only conservative who’s thinking about trying something new in 2018. During the first week of September, Long drew 120 people to a town hall at the Veterans Memorial Museum in Lewis County, where Trump beat Hillary by 36 points.
That kind of turnout shocked Carol Brock, chair of the Lewis County Democrats. The only other time she’d seen the meeting room at the museum so full was when they hosted the last survivor of the USS Indianapolis, a famous warship sunk in shark-infested waters.
The crowd was generally supportive of Long, but a few critics grilled her with questions about taxes. “She handled it very professionally. She handled it very smartly. She knows how to work a room,” Brock said.
At one point during the evening, according to Brock, a woman in the audience said her husband planned to vote for Long even though he was a registered Republican. Long, of course, couldn’t say the same thing for her own husband.
So, some conservative dads say they’ll vote for her. But could Long actually win?
The short answer is yes. But the longer answer is worth considering.
Herrera Beutler has a two-point head start in a district drawn to ensure Republican rule. Plus, according to the latest FEC reports, she’s beating Long nearly 3 to 1 in the fundraising game. She's going to be extremely difficult to beat.
However, polling from Lake Research Partners, a slightly left-leaning pollster, shows Herrera Beutler with a 39 percent approval rating. So there’s some opportunity there.
The 3rd has a long history of sending both Republicans and Democrats to Congress. Herrera Beutler surfed in on a red wave in 2010, defeating Denny Heck for an open seat by 6 points. Democrat Brian Baird—who has endorsed Long—held the seat for 10 years before that. Redistricting negotiations in 2010 made the district safer for Republicans, and as a result Herrera Beutler hasn’t really faced much competition since she took office.
But Long seems to be gaining momentum.
After her strong showing in the primaries, support for Long began to pour in from local and national Democratic institutions. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee added Long to their “Red to Blue” list. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Patty Murray, as well as Reps. Ted Lieu and Adam Smith, gave her their endorsements. The Washington State Labor Council and the American Federation of Teachers are also behind her.
Several Indivisible groups are helping out, as is Swing Left, a national networking organization that funnels people and resources to swing districts.
Brock, the chair of the Lewis County Dems, is cautiously optimistic, but she says this year “feels different.”
“I know a lot of Republicans—I don’t know how many of them will vote for her, but they’re looking at her,” Brock said. “The state party has given us support. We have a coordinated campaign office that a young woman is running in Longview for our 19th and 20th [Legislative Districts]. We’re phone banking, door knocking. We have an Indivisible group here. We have another man out in east county with a contingent of canvassers starting to campaign for [Long]. These are things that have not happened before.”
Though she liked the other candidates who ran against Herrera Beutler—Jim Moeller, Bob Dingethall, Jon Haugen, Denny Heck—Brock thinks it will take a woman win. “Carolyn is that woman,” she said.
Fischer has been out canvassing in both liberal and conservative areas of Klickitat County and says she feels “a ton of energy.”
Mike Bridges, a business rep for IBEW Local 48, which represents a little over 1,000 electricians living in southwest Washington, thinks Long has a real chance, too. “I spend a lot of time in Clark County, and I see [Long] a couple times a week. I can count the number of times I’ve seen her opponent in my district on one hand. And she’s been around for a long time,” he said.
Long points to 1,251 volunteers, 21,000 donors, and fundraising numbers that quadrupled the amounts raised by the three previous Democratic challengers combined. Plus, she seems to be running a tight ship. Based on spending reports from the FEC, Long spent $9.53 per vote while Herrera Beutler spent $12.80.
The fact that Long has taught thousands of students who live in the district isn’t lost on her, either. “They’re coming out of the woodwork to support me. I’ll go to Pacific county and I’ll see a port commissioner I taught 17 years ago. Or I’ll see the secretary who helped hire me at WSU. We’re creating our own little blue wave down here in southwest Washington with our own little network of people I’ve met in the 23 years I’ve spent working in this community,” she says.
So far, opposition has been scant and kinda petty.
Though she’s worked in the district for decades, Long's opponents have argued that she’s a carpetbagger. Before buying a condo in the district in July of 2017, Long commuted to WSU from Salem, Ore., where she lived with her family.
Long dismisses the carpetbagger accusations as “ridiculous.”
“It just seems a little bit desperate to me. And frankly, I’ve seen more constituents in nine months than Jaime Herrera Beutler has seen in eight years,” she says.
Constituents criticize Herrera Beutler for not holding in-person town halls, and Long claims she hasn’t held one in the last 18 months. She holds telephone town halls instead because, as she told the Chinook Observer, “It’s the most efficient way to get a large crowd together at the same time.”
Democrats say they feel the tele-town halls are set up to silence dissenters, and they generally complain about lack of access to their representative.
“She’s kept herself closed off,” Brock said. “She has an office in the City of Chehalis building. We visit every Tuesday, but she only has staff members there. She’s never been there.”
Herrera Beutler hasn’t done herself any favors on this issue recently. Last week The Daily News reported that the Congresswoman declined an invitation from the Clark County League of Women Voters to debate Long. Though the organization specifically chose a date during recess, when Herrera Beutler should be back in town meeting with constituents, she said she couldn’t make it “due to a scheduling conflict.”
The Congresswoman has agreed to attend two candidate forums and one “debate” organized by the Woodland Chamber of Commerce. The two forums look like side-by-side affairs where both candidates say where they are on the issues and pack up without ever confronting the other in direct conversation. A representative for the Woodland Chamber of Commerce described the format of their “debate” as more a forum, wherein both candidates will start with introductory statements and answer questions from the audience. So, not a debate.
Voter contact is a cornerstone of Long’s candidacy, and if elected she says she’ll continue to hold in-person town halls. “I hold the town halls because I’m not going to agree with everybody 100 percent of the time, but I want to be able to look people in the eye and tell them why I disagree with them. And I want to allow that person the opportunity to persuade me, to tell me why I’m wrong,” she said. “Constituents pay attention to reps who have checked out, and I think this is one who has checked out in terms of direct voter contact, and that’s why I think we’re going to win.”
But if you’re one of those people who thinks direct communication with constituents is overrated, you can always check out Herrera Beutler's voting record to prove she's out of touch with voters.
Though she did vote against the Trumpcare bill, Herrera Beutler votes with the President 91 percent of the time. She was the only Congressperson in Washington to vote for the draconian immigration bill that would have allowed the government to indefinitely detain children with their families. She backed the most recent Farm Bill, which cut food stamps and increased barriers to access. She voted to deregulate Wall Street. And—of course—she voted for Trump’s tax cuts, which benefits the wealthy at the expense of the middle class. Herrera Beutler votes like she’s representing Oklahoma, not a purple district in western Washington.
The 3rd is one of three competitive Congressional races in Washington state. Out east, Republicans will want to defend Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers from her strong Democratic challenger, Lisa Brown, at all costs. Given Kim Schrier’s support in central Washington, the race to replace Dave Reichert with Dino Rossi will suck up a lot of resources for Republicans, too. If Herrera Beutler gets third dibs, then support for Long has the potential to go far.
If you want Democrats to win back the House in November and restore some measure of accountability and oversight to government, the regular advice applies. Seattleites and other far-flung Washingtonians can phone bank. Cool kids in Portland can hop the river and canvas in Vancouver. Everybody else can open up their wallets and give Long $5 if they have it.
Also important: college students have returned for the fall semester, and Long is going to need every one of their votes if she wants to win. If you’re a college kid who just moved to Vancouver from a blue district, then register to vote in the 3rd as soon as you can. If you just left WSU for a job elsewhere, then do not change your voter registration. Come back home in late October, do some laundry, do some Trick or Treating, say hi to mom, and vote for Carolyn Long.
You’re going to want to get on all of this very soon. The election is 8 weeks away.