RIDGEFIELD — Amid the corn dog stands, bumper cars and llama pens at the Clark County Fair last week, Democratic candidate Marie Gluesenkamp Perez looked for signs of hope for her congressional campaign this fall.
For much of the year, the media buzz and big money in the 3rd Congressional District swirled around U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler and her Donald Trump-endorsed challenger, Joe Kent. That contest was settled in the Aug. 2 primary, with Republicans booting Herrera Beutler for her Trump impeachment vote.
Now, the comparatively little-known Gluesenkamp Perez will appear on the November ballot against Kent, a Green Beret combat veteran who has garnered national attention and plenty of prime Fox News airtime as a leading flag-carrier for the pro-Trump "America First" movement.
At the fair, most passersby appeared to be hearing about Gluesenkamp Perez for the first time, or were only dimly aware of the looming matchup. But as she chatted with a pair of Shriners next to a fish-and-chips stand, she found a convert in Kent Stradley.
Stradley, a 79-year-old retired truck driver who considers himself a political independent, said he'd voted for Herrera Beutler in the primary. But he'll be backing Gluesenkamp Perez this fall. He agreed with Herrera Beutler's vote to impeach Trump. "They should never have let that guy in there, ever," he said.
Gluesenkamp Perez's chances — and she begins the race as a serious underdog — will depend, in part, on how many Herrera Beutler supporters like Stradley are out there.
To have a shot, she'll also need a surge in turnout from Democrats who could become energized to defeat Kent, the state's most high-profile Trump backer, who has echoed the ex-president's falsehoods about the 2020 election.
Campaigning in the Republican-leaning district, Gluesenkamp Perez, 34, is emphasizing her working-class bona fides as a resident of rural Skamania County who co-owns a Portland auto-repair shop with her husband.
And she's arguing that even in a relatively Republican district, Kent's views are far out of the mainstream.
"This guy is so extreme. He is out of line with this district. If you go out there and ask people what their priorities are in Congress, they're not going to tell you it's building the wall, arresting Fauci and impeaching Biden," she said.
Gluesenkamp Perez grew up in Texas. Her father immigrated from Mexico and met her mother on a visit to Washington. She graduated from Reed College in Portland with a degree in economics.
She and her husband, Dean, run an auto-repair shop with six lifts and eight employees, housed in a grungy machine shop they bought with the help of a federal small-business loan. They have a young son and a black dog named Uma Furman.
Working in the trades as well as living in a rural home the couple built themselves has put her in touch with people who have grown estranged from the Democratic Party's political class, she said.
Gluesenkamp Perez supported Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic primaries, saying he better understood how much of the country has fallen behind. Plus she said she'd already spent most of her life under two political dynasties, the Bushes and the Clintons, and "that just didn't feel good to me."
Though it's not played up much in her campaign biography, Gluesenkamp Perez has been active in politics as an elected member of the Democratic National Committee, where she pushed for the organization to stop requiring cross-country travel as a condition of membership, to open up opportunities for people who aren't wealthy. She also ran unsuccessfully for a seat on the Skamania County Board of Commissioners in 2016.
Republicans have already attacked her as a far-left activist, even a Marxist, but Gluesenkamp said her actual life cuts against that image. "Yeah, I mean if I were a blue-haired Marxist I couldn't get elected here. But I work in the trades. This is what middle-of-the-road looks like," she said.
She's also distancing herself from some Democratic Party positions.
"I don't support the ban on assault rifles. I support the timber industry. I believe there is a lot of ham-fisted meddling in government," she said.
Gluesenkamp Perez said she'll emphasize pocketbook issues like schools and jobs, as well as her pro-abortion-rights views, as a contrast to Kent.
Kent last week appeared confident following his second-place primary showing, which bounced the six-term incumbent Herrera Beutler to third place and off the Nov. 8 general election ballot.
In an interview at a Battle Ground coffee shop, where some customers congratulated him and asked to take selfies, he said he's taking nothing for granted and will work to broaden his appeal by focusing on economic issues.
"It's not specifically about Marie. My issue is with the policies of the Democratic Party. I mean, if she's talking about blue-collar people working in the trades, the Democrat Party has left and abandoned that," Kent said. "They've favored Wall Street, they've favored foreign immigration to the American people, and that's on full display."
After a sometimes vicious GOP primary fight, Kent is trying to consolidate the Republican vote, including supporters of Herrera Beutler. Despite attacking her in the primary as a "corporatist swamp creature" who betrayed Trump, he said he'd welcome her endorsement.
"I think we have to put past differences aside and unify, so it's a conversation I'd be more than willing to have," he said. "Also I understand if we don't have the conversation. You know, I get it."
A Herrera Beutler campaign spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment on endorsement plans.
Another GOP rival, Heidi St. John, immediately endorsed Kent following the primary, despite spending the last few months attacking him as a carpetbagging secret socialist. In an email announcement, she said Gluesenkamp Perez would be a "solid vote for Nancy Pelosi's America-killing agenda."
Based on the primary vote breakdown, Democrats face an uphill slog to win the district. Gluesenkamp Perez took 31% of the vote, and another Democrat on the ballot had 2%, giving Democrats a combined vote share of 33%.
The five Republicans on the ballot drew a combined 65% of the vote, led by Kent at 23% and Herrera Beutler at 22%. Even if many of Herrera Beutler's backers switch to Gluesenkamp Perez, she'd likely have to pick up additional support, whether from independents or higher turnout among Democrats this fall.
Still, 2022 is, in some ways, uncharted territory.
Herrera Beutler is the first incumbent Washington member of Congress to lose in a primary since Seattle's John F. Miller in 1930, according to Benjamin Helle, research archivist with the Washington State Archives.
Some national analysts see Kent's primary win turning the 3rd District into a possible pickup opportunity for Democrats.
Dave Wasserman, with the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, last week updated his prediction for the race from "Solid Republican" to "Leans Republican," writing that Kent's "far right" views could put "the Portland suburban seat in play in November."
Meanwhile, Gluesenkamp Perez's campaign has seen a surge of more than $300,000 in online donations in the past week. She had raised just $240,000 for the primary, compared with Kent's $2.5 million.
She's bringing on a new campaign manager, Phil Gardner, who is leaving his position as chief of staff to Lt. Gov. Denny Heck. (Herrera Beutler defeated Heck in 2010 to win her first term in Congress).
State Democratic Party Chair Tina Podlodowski said she's pushing national Democrats to take another look at the 3rd District race. "I think that there is a potential opportunity to get some polling done in the race and see how people in the district actually feel about Joe Kent," she said.
There have so far been no commitments.
Johanna Warshaw, a spokesperson for the Democratic National Campaign Committee said in a statement the organization hasn't made any decisions, but "we are watching this seat closely." She said Kent is "a dangerous extremist" who is "too dangerous to hold office."
Kent last week joined other Republicans in pledging retaliation against the FBI and Justice Department after the raid of Trump's Mar-a-Lago residence, where a search warrant revealed agents were looking for highly sensitive classified information that Trump may have illegally held.
He said he'd support efforts to "defund" the FBI and clean house at the top of the Justice Department, and retweeted U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene's announcement that she'd filed articles of impeachment against Attorney General Merrick Garland.
At the fair, voters were only beginning to learn about Gluesenkamp Perez, who sat down with strangers as they chowed down on fair food.
"I've heard of Joe Kent. I'm not a big fan of him," said Alicia Ornelas, 33, of Vancouver, whose family immigrated from Mexico, saying she's concerned about anti-immigrant policies.
She said she hadn't heard anything about Gluesenkamp Perez before, "but now I am going to look into the information she gave us."