After Democrat Marie Gluesenkamp Perez pulled off the most surprising upset win of last year's congressional midterms, her narrowly defeated rival, Donald Trump-backed Republican Joe Kent, wasted no time in filing for a rematch in 2024.
Kent, a retired Army Special Forces veteran, has already secured early endorsements from the state Republican Party and county GOP organizations throughout southwest Washington's 3rd Congressional District.
But some Republicans, stung by what they see as Kent's squandering of a House seat in the GOP-leaning district, are getting behind an alternative candidate they say comes with less baggage and a better shot at ousting Gluesenkamp Perez.
Leslie Lewallen, a city council member in Camas, Clark County, has drawn early support and endorsements from prominent Republicans, including former Attorney General Rob McKenna, former Secretary of State Sam Reed and Tiffany Smiley, the 2022 challenger to Sen. Patty Murray.
The effort is emblematic of unease among some more moderate and old-line Republicans with the Trump and MAGA populist wing that has come to dominate the party — with disastrous results for the GOP in blue-leaning states like Washington.
On Thursday evening, Smiley and Reed joined a couple dozen other supporters for a Lewallen fundraiser at a small hotel conference room in downtown Bellevue, organized by Metropolitan King County Councilmember Reagan Dunn.
"It's a bit of an insurgency campaign. Who knows what the chances are?" Dunn said before the event, acknowledging Kent's support among many activists in the pro-Trump Republican base.
But Kent, said Dunn, "had a pretty decent year to win, and he didn't win. I don't see anything that has changed to make anything different next year."
In her speech at the fundraiser, and at a recent kickoff event in Camas, Lewallen didn't directly criticize Kent, saying she wants to fight fentanyl coming across borders, for more parental control of schools and affordable gas and groceries.
"But in order to do that, I need to fight to beat Marie Perez. She won the last election and she shouldn't have done it. She should not be in office, and if we lose this seat again, we could lose this seat forever," she said at the Bellevue event, calling Gluesenkamp Perez "an imposter" and no true moderate.
Kent's campaign, in a statement, said he's a "battle tested" candidate and the clear choice to defeat Gluesenkamp Perez.
"In 2022, Joe Kent lost the seat by less than 1% despite a deeply divided Republican Party that spent $10 million against him in the primary and being outspent 6-to-1 in the General Election," said the statement from campaign spokesperson Erin Van Natta. "This cycle, Republicans across the district, state, and country are unifying behind him because they know the only way we lose again is if the party is divided."
The statement noted the state GOP's endorsement, as well as those of Republican organizations in Clark, Cowlitz, Lewis, Skamania, Wahkiakum and Thurston counties. The Clark County Republican Party declined to even acknowledge Lewallen as a Republican candidate in the race, according to Clark County Today.
Kent's 2024 campaign has raised more than $430,000, according Federal Election Commission reports through June, compared with about $140,000 for Lewallen. Gluesenkamp Perez has raised more than $1.5 million.
Lewallen said she's not so worried about the early advantages for Kent, saying voters she's talked with so far are excited for "a fresh face, a pragmatic problem solver, an alternative to what was offered last cycle."
Elected to the Camas City Council in 2021, Lewallen has lived in the town since 2018 with her husband and four children. She grew up on Mercer Island and earned a political science degree from the University of Washington and a law degree from Seattle University.
Lewallen clerked for the state Supreme Court and worked as a King County deputy prosecutor, for a conservative legal foundation and a private law firm before retiring from the law to focus on raising a family, according to online biographies and her LinkedIn page.
Before winning election to the Camas council on a platform pledging financial responsibility and government transparency, she also sold beauty products through Younique, a multilevel marketing company, according to a financial disclosure.
Last year, Gluesenkamp Perez beat Kent by 2,629 votes — less than one percentage point, a result that caught many by surprise, as the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee didn't even spend in the race.
Some Republicans and independents in the district had openly said they wouldn't vote for Kent, citing his long list of controversial stances, including denying the 2020 election results, suggesting the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol might have been secretly instigated by the FBI, calling for a total shutdown on immigration to the United States, and saying Anthony Fauci should be charged with murder.
Kent last year had largely dismissed such talk that he was shedding potential Republican voters, saying his win in the contested primary that booted Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler from office over her Trump impeachment vote proved the Third District was "deep-red MAGA country."
But the defections proved decisive enough, as Kent underperformed in the district that Smiley easily carried in last year's Senate race, even as she lost statewide by more than 14 percentage points. At Thursday's fundraiser, Smiley spoke enthusiastically for Lewallen, calling her "the perfect person" to win the Third District.
Unlike in 2022, next year's Third District contest won't sneak up on anyone. Democrats are already zeroing in on it to defend Gluesenkamp Perez, an auto shop co-owner who has worked to aligned herself with moderates, seeking to revive the party's nearly forgotten Blue Dog Coalition of rural Democrats.
In a statement, DCCC spokesperson Dan Gottlieb focused on Kent, calling him the "Washington Republican-conspiracy theorist and far-right extremist." Lewallen or other GOP challengers, Gottlieb said, "will have to lean into the same craziness as Kent — who wants to defund the FBI, make abortions illegal without exception, and ban all legal immigration for the next twenty years. Meanwhile, Representative Gluesenkamp Perez will be busy continuing to fight for the families of Washington's 3rd Congressional District in the halls of Congress."
The full roster of contenders for the seat has plenty of time to grow before next year's top-two primary, set for Aug. 6.
If Kent were to get through the primary and face Gluesenkamp Perez again, he'd be trying to pull off a rare feat in a congressional rematch.
The last losing candidate to flip a Washington congressional seat against the person who defeated them in the previous election was Doc Hastings, the Republican who lost to Democrat Jay Inslee in central Washington's 4th Congressional District in 1992, but beat him in the Republican wave of 1994.