Joe Kent, Heidi St. John and other Republicans hoping to unseat Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler made their cases at a forum in Kelso on Wednesday night.
The two-hour candidate form for Washington's Congressional District 3 held by the Cowlitz County Republican Party was livestreamed and posted on Facebook by Cowlitz Citizens Update.
In addition to Herrera Beutler's most prominent challengers, Matthew Overton and Leslie "Nick" French spoke to the people gathered at the forum and watching online. State Rep. Vicki Kraft initially expected to attend the forum but she did not attend.
Six Republicans and four Democrats have filed to run for the District 3 Congressional seat. Given the crowded field and Washington's open primary system, the candidates and local party officials discussed the need to avoid splitting votes during the August primary and allowing Herrera Beulter to retain her seat.
"There isn’t an option. We have to consolidate or Jamie will run us over again," Kent said.
Kent received an endorsement from former President Donald Trump last year and has led Herrera Beutler’s opponents in terms of fundraising over the last year. Still, he said the ultimate goal was making sure someone was able to unseat the congresswoman.
St. John said she would not answer that hypothetical question. Her previous committal to dropping out to support whichever candidate was endorsed by Trump became a point of contention. St. John said she would always support whoever was best suited to represent conservative values in Congress.
“It’s not enough to see who has an R behind their name,” St. John said. “I want to know, do you have a record of conservatism? Do you have a track record or are you a brand new member of the Republican Party?”
Jerry Cooper, vice chair of the Cowlitz County Republican Central Committee, said Herrera Beutler did not respond to an offer to participate.
Election Integrity Questioned
In addition to worries about vote splitting, all four candidates at the forum stoked fears about the integrity of past and future elections.
“I am very apprehensive about a Republican winning the third district because election integrity is compromised,” French said, citing vague worries about Clark County voting machines.
There is little evidence to suggest the District 3 seat would return to a Democrat for the first time since 2010. An evaluation by the nonpartisan agency PlanScore estimated Republicans had an 89% chance of winning the district in Washington’s most recently proposed congressional map.
Kent and Vicki Kraft each signed on as plaintiffs in lawsuits by the Washington Election Integrity Coalition United challenging the state’s 2020 election results in multiple counties. The suit demanded an election audit and public release of ballots based on so-far unproven claims of election officials switching votes or using illegitimate voter rolls.
Several of those cases have been dismissed in county courts. A statewide version of the lawsuit has been brought to the State Supreme Court, where Commissioner Michael Johnston during a December hearing said he “can’t really call it competent evidence” of fraud.
Asked about solutions to ensure future election integrity, Kent focused on registering more Republican voters and assembling outside of counting offices on election night to ensure accurate counting. St. John suggested the state completely do away with mail-in ballots.
“I see my role in Congress is to shine a light on the importance of election integrity and to make sure ... the federal government gets the heck out of our elections,” St. John said.
The candidate forum featured a lot of intense and at times contradictory rhetoric.
In back-to-back sentences during her introduction, St. John called Gov. Jay Inslee a criminal and accused the Democrats of being divisive.
Kent said if elected, his immediate priority was not to pass any particular legislation but to help create gridlock over President Biden’s goals for the next two years.
“The Dems’ legislative agenda will not move further one inch. Anything Biden wants to get done through Congress will get killed off,” Kent said.