As Washington's 3rd Congressional District primary election in August approaches, advocates rallying behind "flipping the 3rd" may pose a risk to its reality by splitting the Democratic vote.
Brent Hennrich of Vancouver gained local Democrats' attention when he announced his campaign to mend Southwest Washington and unseat Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Battle Ground, more than a year ago. During this time, the candidate attentively tailored his campaign messaging, how he reached out to constituents and to which issues he wanted to call attention.
Hennrich performed well in polls commonly shared by other congressional candidates and garnered a loyal supporter base — he was the most promising, involved Democrat vying to replace the incumbent.
In the spring, however, his base slowly began to decentralize after Democrat Marie Perez of Skamania declared her candidacy in February for the position. According to the Federal Elections Commissions, Perez raised $67,059 for campaign financing in one fiscal quarter — approaching Hennrich's total of $76,973, which he has collected since last spring.
The drift of voter support was inevitable, Hennrich said; to think otherwise would be naïve. However, he added, Democrats need to coalesce to make flipping the 3rd District a reality.
As of Monday, there are five Democrats and six Republicans in the race, according to Ballotpedia.
"I am scared of a vote split that removes both of us from making it into the primary," Hennrich said. "I don't believe that there is the Democratic support to push two candidates fully forward."
Perez jumped into the race and quickly gained traction because voters felt there wasn't a "serious, viable" Democratic challenger in the race, she said. The newest Democratic candidate pointed to her education in economics and political involvement as appealing qualities in a congressional representative. Specifically, Perez serves in the state's National Democratic Committee, works for the Underwood Soil and Water Conservation District, and was formerly a vice chair of the Skamania County Democrats.
Most importantly, Perez said, voters can relate to her — a worker in the trades.
"It's not about convincing people to flip their vote and vote for a Democrat; this partisan infighting is exactly the problem," said Perez, who is an auto body shop owner. "It's not about red versus blue. It's about middle class versus the oligarchy."
Although Hennrich doesn't have political experience, he is confident in his ability to represent Southwest Washingtonians. He is also resolute in his campaign approach to continue promoting what he called "sensible solutions," emphasizing the value of the working class, and retaining his accessibility to constituents.
"I wouldn't say anything's in jeopardy just yet," he continued. "... this was never going to be an easy thing to do. I have to just keep working and going forward."
To flip or to flop
The Democrats' challenge is not unique to the 3rd District, wrote Carolyn Long, the Democratic candidate in the 2018 and 2020 election for the position.
Voters have become more polarized in the past 20 years. This often happens because the loudest partisan voices get the most attention on media platforms, bolstering polarizing rhetoric and influencing political conversations and candidate behavior in the process, Long told The Columbian in an email.
Redistricting — along with partisan gerrymandering — also significantly influenced the district's steadfast position as a red zone. In 2010, the Washington State Redistricting Commission adjusted boundaries following a decennial census, which added a congressional district to accommodate the state's population growth — leading to a loss of people included in the 3rd District.
With the addition of the 10th District, Southwest Washington welcomed the new boundaries that created comfortable districts for both Republicans and Democrats, Long wrote. However, Long added, the lack of competitiveness also allows for more extreme candidates to replace moderate ones.
Still, the former candidate had an optimistic note:
"But with hard work, focused attention on all of the voters of the district, and the right message, any seat can be flipped," she wrote.
Long said she is withholding her endorsement for any Democratic candidate to allow the voters to get to know the prospective representatives. In the meantime, the professor of political science and constitutional law at Washington State University Vancouver will continue to provide her general support and insight to Hennrich and Perez, who she has spoken with during their campaigns.
"Of course, it is difficult to appeal to voters in this district (especially in this polarized climate), but I found that when people were open to a conversation, we could find common ground with shared values and beliefs," Long wrote.