Democrats see best chance to flip Eastern Washington's Congressional seat in decades


It's been nearly 30 years since Democrats last represented Eastern Washington in Congress. Now with incumbent Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers not running for re-election, some in the party see a once-in-a-generation opportunity.

It wouldn't be an easy seat for a Democrat to capture. Trump easily won every county in the district except Whitman in 2020. He won some of those counties by more than 30 percentage points and he won Spokane County by more than 4 percentage points. Erin Covey, the Cook Political Report's House analyst, said earlier this month that Washington's 5th Congressional District is "a steep climb for any Democrat."

But Stephen Reed, communications director for the state Democratic Party, called this year's race the best opportunity in Washington to pick up a seat and flip control of the U.S. House, gaining a majority that could elect New York Democrat Rep. Hakeem Jeffries as speaker.

"With Lisa Brown's election to mayor in Spokane, it shows Democrats can win in that area," Reed said. "Obviously the city is different than Spokane County, but we believe with the right combination of strong candidates, strong fundraising and really, really good ground game ... that people will make the right choice for democracy."

Only two Republicans have formally announced they plan to run to succeed McMorris Rodgers in Congress, recently retired state employee John Guenther and Ferry County Commissioner Brian Dansel, but many more have said they are considering entering the race. Some Democrats hope that a crowded Republican field could dilute fundraising and prevent consolidation before the primary, particularly compared to the war chest and near-universal party support with which McMorris Rodgers would have entered the race.

Democrats, by comparison, have a nominal head start. Three have already entered the race: OB-GYN Dr. Bernadine "Bernie" Bank; Carmela Conroy, former chair of the Spokane County Democrats; and small business owner Ann Marie Danimus.

Incumbency in Eastern Washington has historically been a near guarantee of long-term tenure in Congress.  Only four people have represented Eastern Washington in the U.S. House in the past 82 years: Republican Walter Horan served for 22 years, followed by the 30-year term of Democrat Tom Foley, 10-year term of Republican George Nethercutt and soon to be 20-year term of McMorris Rodgers.

"Our district is very loyal to their elected representatives, regardless of whether they're Republicans or Democrats," Conroy said. "This is a chance, for the first time in 20 years, for voters in our district to ask themselves seriously, what do they want from their elected representative?"

However, an incumbent in the district voluntarily resigning has not historically been a guarantee the other party would win office. Democrat Samuel Hill resigned in 1936 to take an appointment to federal office, and was succeeded by Democrat Charles Leavy. Nethercutt resigned in 2004 in an unsuccessful bid for Senate and was succeeded by McMorris Rodgers.

The last time a resignation led to party control of the seat being flipped was more than 80 years ago in 1942 when Leavy resigned for a seat on the federal bench and was replaced by voters with Horan.

More often, party control has switched after long-term incumbents lost during major political shifts, as when Foley defeated Horan in a 1964 Democratic landslide and when Foley lost to Nethercutt in the 1994 Republican Revolution.

Even before McMorris Rodgers announced she planned to resign, Democrats who said the district could be flipped believed the winds had once again shifted, pointing to a divided Republican Party evidenced by last year's intraparty fight over the speaker of the House, former President Donald Trump's role as the party's figurehead and the Supreme Court's 2022 Dobbs decision taking away the constitutional right to an abortion.

"We've seen in places like Kansas and Ohio that the abortion issue is a winning issue," said Shasti Conrad, chair of the state Democratic Party. "Women, regardless of party, are recognizing that they don't want their rights rolled back."

Some of the current Democratic candidates in the race have made protecting abortion access one of the primary pillars of their campaigns. Bank is running on a platform focused on women's health care and veteran's rights. A day after last year's elections, Bank's exploratory committee issued a news release under the headline "Women's Health Wins Across America And Will Win in Eastern Washington."

"Being an obstetrician-gynecologist and pretty much the biggest issue in America right now being women's health, I feel like I'm not really running against others as much as I'm running for women's health," she said at the time. "I just feel like my message right now is a really strong message that's going to resonate."

Many have also said they hope to replicate Rep. Marie Gluesenkamp Perez's victory in 2022, when she narrowly beat Trump-endorsed Joe Kent to represent southwest Washington.

"Marie Gluesenkamp Perez ran against a Republican extremist because the folks in that district voted out the moderate Republican that represented them," Conroy said, adding that her campaign includes staff from Perez's 2022 run. "Our next representative will either be voting for a total abortion ban or, if I'm elected, we'll be codifying their rights. We can't afford to send an extremist to Congress."

Bank, Conroy and Danimus have been in the race for months and have a head start on fundraising and accruing the backing of community and party leaders.

But in the days following McMorris Rodgers' announcement she would not run for re-election, some Democrats have been quietly asking whether the three candidates have the name recognition or record to mount a successful campaign, pointing to the closest any candidate came to ousting the longtime congresswoman:  Brown.

Brown entered the 2018 race with decades of elected experience, having served in the state House from 1993 to 1996, and in the state Senate until 2013, including a stint as the state Senate majority leader. McMorris Rodgers won by nearly 10 points, but it was still her narrowest margin of victory before or since.

In a recent interview, Brown noted that the three candidates currently in the race were "untested," with the possible exception of Danimus, who ran for the seat in 2022 but lost the primary with around 10% of the vote.

Many have speculated that current state Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, D-Spokane, or state Rep. Marcus Riccelli, D-Spokane, would enter the race and try to improve on Brown's 2018 run. But both lawmakers, who are up for re-election this year and would have to give up their safe seats for a long-shot run for Congress, have said they won't enter the race to represent Eastern Washington.

"We're certainly going to see how things play out in the next couple of weeks," Conrad said. "McMorris Rodgers' announcement I think was a surprise to many of us, and folks are still processing, and we'll see if anyone currently in office decides to step forward."

Conroy, who was the early recipient of endorsements from a number of local Democratic power brokers including Riccelli and Billig, said that a Democratic contender with a strong background in elected office "would be ideal."

"But I think we are at a point where people are tired of politicians," said Conroy, who is running on her experience as a deputy prosecutor and diplomat under Democratic and Republican administrations. "I've got a lot of experience working in government, but never in a partisan way."

Danimus, who has said she has the best chance among Democratic challengers because she's trying to appeal to voters in rural areas outside of Spokane County, altogether disagrees that a previously elected Democrat would have the best shot at winning this seat.

"I think they're wrong," she said. "Lisa is the closest we got. I adore Lisa, she's doing amazing things as mayor... but she didn't get close. The powers that be are 0 for 9, and I think their picker is broken."

Spokane County Democratic Party Chair Naida Spencer, who said that Bank, Conroy and Danimus were all strong candidates, said Friday that she would be surprised if any more significant Democratic challengers enter the race in coming weeks.