The latest battle in Joe Kent’s life is a primary election nine months away. It’s unlike any the former Green Beret has faced before.
Perched on a picnic table in Kalama, Washington, he reconnoitered his campaign with a few dozen volunteers — a batch of early backers for his first foray into politics. They ate pizza and game-planned the weeks and months ahead against a setting September sun.
Then, one volunteer’s question quieted the conversation.
Had Heidi St. John, the other Republican challenger to U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, dropped out yet? Had she honored the deal?
After months building a profile as a geopolitical operator — through local events, national television appearances and taking part in far-right events — the question reminded the crowd of the sobering arithmetic Kent currently faces.
Three Republicans, Kent included, declared themselves ready to unseat Herrera Beutler after she voted to impeach former President Donald Trump in January. The vote instantly turned the Southwest Washington representative radioactive to a GOP increasingly driven by loyalty to Trump.
Incensed as local Republicans were, they also knew they had to consolidate around a single challenger if they hoped to secure enough votes to unseat Herrera Beutler. Today, only Kent and St. John remain — and the latter has shown no interest in quitting.
Kent hopes his emergence as the favored outsider is enough to overcome St. John’s potential as a spoiler. A rookie politician but a career soldier, Kent pitches this race like a war he’s uniquely equipped to win.
The language of insurgency underscores his campaign, a byproduct of melding Trump’s “America First” platform with his military background. Campaign strategies, for example, are “vectors of attack” at the volunteer meeting.
Although he’s attempting to unseat an incumbent, Kent’s grandest fight isn’t with one individual, he says. He repeatedly derides “the establishment” — a class of Democrats, Republicans, military generals, careerists in Washington, D.C., and plutocrats that he says are scheming against the public.
The volunteer’s question about St. John reminded the crowd how much further Kent has to go. He gripped a microphone. Rolled-up sleeves bared tattoos of an angelic female Kurdish soldier with a rifle, flaming rubble of the World Trade Center, and Roman numerals inscribing the date his wife died three years earlier.
He fired out an answer. No, St. John wasn’t dropping out. The deal they had made was dead.
“And all that’s doing is benefitting Jaime Herrera Beutler,” he said. “All that’s doing is benefitting the establishment.”
Coinciding with his endorsement by the former president in September, Kent’s profile is on the rise.
White and square-jawed with curly hair, the U.S. Special Forces veteran is becoming a regular face on conservative cable news. Sometimes he discusses his campaign in Washington’s 3rd District. Sometimes he channels his combat background to riff on the day’s foreign affairs headlines.
Four days after the Kalama event, Kent was flying to Washington, D.C., as the Pentagon announced a drone strike had killed 10 Afghan civilians — seven of them children. His phone pinged with a text as soon as he touched down.
Tucker Carlson needed a guest, wrote his advisor, a former Trump campaign staffer named Matt Braynard. Kent beelined from the airport to the Fox News studios. The next morning, he went on Steve Bannon’s “War Room” podcast.
He’s appeared on those programs multiple times this year. Both hosts make a point to encourage their audiences to support Kent. In Carlson’s introduction that night, he told viewers “we’re not ashamed to say we’re rooting for him.”
The media blitz is vital, Kent said, to give him name recognition. A year ago, he kickstarted his campaign with $200,000 of his own. He said he drew about half of that from his late wife’s life insurance.
“In order to overcome an 11-year incumbent,” Kent said in an interview, “I need every vote, and I need every percentage, and I need every dollar.”
Audiences are taking their cue. According to federal campaign finance filings, Kent collected $452,131 this summer, a 23% jump from the spring quarter. His $836,818 in cash-on-hand trails Herrera Beutler’s $1.4 million, but it’s more than double that of St. John, a Christian author, public speaker and podcaster.
In fact, Kent is outpacing recent history in the district. Carolyn Long, a professor well-funded by Democrats to challenge Herrera Beutler the last two cycles, never banked this much this quickly.
Several of his biggest contributors are familiar Trump supporters, such as Stephen Wynn, the billionaire casino mogul who briefly chaired the Republican National Committee before resigning amid sexual misconduct allegations; and PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel. Both gave the maximum $5,800.
Kent isn’t surprised donors across the country seem to be locking onto his signal.
“It’s obviously a national race just because of the whole impeachment vote, and the way the president has weighed in on the race,” he said.
In Kalama, Kent roused a home crowd.
On the picnic table-turned-stump, he ridiculed the PAC money flowing into Herrera Beutler’s campaign. And he touted his own campaign signing up more than 300 volunteers — a factor in Trump’s decision to endorse.
“He called me up and said ‘Joe, this is your favorite president,’” Kent told the laughing volunteers. “I guess he’d already seen our polling and our fundraising, but he said ‘How many volunteers do you have?’
“So you guys helped me get across the finish line to get that Trump endorsement,” Kent added. “You guys are part of the movement and I appreciate it.”
The former president’s influence is apparent on the campaign trail. In stops from downtown Vancouver to Cowlitz and Lewis counties, people with Trump flags, MAGA buttons or “Deplorable”-stitched hats show up for Kent.
Once, a woman wearing an American flag loudly asked if Trump would ever visit the district. She drew squeals from women around her after she offered a room in her home for his stay.
Kent himself echoes the former president as he works to sway the district’s conservative voters away from Herrera Beutler. His platform is headlined by promises of building a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border, returning manufacturing jobs from overseas and withdrawing troops from the Middle East.
But the path for any candidate to unseat Herrera Beutler may require a broader base than Kent can muster, political observers say, due to Washington’s unique primary system.
Here, Republicans and Democrats don’t get separate ballots. Everyone appears on the ballot together — and the top-two vote-getters advance to the general election. David Wasserman, of The Cook Political Report, said Herrera Beutler is a lock to at least make the November ballot.
“Herrera Beutler has one thing on the rest of the field, and that’s universal name recognition,” Wasserman said. “That alone is likely to propel her to the top spot.”
Come November, it’s hard to see a scenario where Herrera Beutler isn’t favored. In a district as purple as Southwest Washington — Democrats and Republicans have each held the seat twice in the last three decades — the moderate congresswoman can use her impeachment vote and Republican nameplate to balance the scales.
“If she were to face a Democrat in the fall, she would likely clobber the Democrat,” Wasserman said. “If she were to face Joe Kent in an all-Republican runoff, she would likely be able to win enough votes from Democrats to overcome Kent.”
Braynard, Kent’s campaign advisor, thinks the top-two system could be double-edged. Outsider candidates have fared OK here, he noted. In 2012, Libertarian Ron Paul finished second to Mitt Romney in a caucus primary. Four years later, voters favored progressive Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton in all but two of the district’s counties.
The political middle Herrera Beutler has clung to, Braynard said, could leave her the odd one out.
“People are eager to find someone to defeat Jaime Herrera Beutler,” he insisted.
To him, Kent is the dream candidate: intelligent with a decorated military pedigree. In front of the volunteers, Braynard compared him to Superman’s alias, Clark Kent.
Braynard, who is bald, joked that made him Lex Luthor.
The first child of two attorneys, Kent grew up in southwest Portland in a conservative and deeply Catholic household, according to his father.
“We ran maybe a little bit of a tight ship,” Chris Kent said. “We said, as long as you’re living under our roof, if it’s Sunday, we’re going to mass. Pray for your friends, pray for your enemies, whatever — you’re going.”
Though his parents forbade “war toys” early on, Kent found himself drawn by the military whizbangs shown on nightly news — paratroopers in Panama or night vision goggles during Desert Storm.
Kent was 13 in 1993 when coverage of the Battle of Mogadishu — which later became the basis for the book and film “Black Hawk Down” — gripped the country. Television stations broadcast Somali militiamen dragging dead American soldiers through the streets.
“That was probably the first modern, savage combat that was caught on camera,” Kent said. “And I was like, ‘Holy crap. There’s guys over there fighting, like, literally hand-to-hand combat right now, and they’re just like me.’ Some of them could be kids from Portland, Oregon … for all I know.”
When he joined at 18, it was during peacetime late in President Bill Clinton’s administration. But fights away from the battlefield were shaping Kent’s views on government.
In 1999, Kent’s father went toe-to-toe with the U.S. Department of Justice. Chris Kent won a $6 million settlement against the FBI, after a judge ruled agents willfully leaked bad intelligence alleging a Portland-area banker had bribed Czech Republic officials.
The case drew Kent’s attention to other famous incidents involving federal law enforcement. He dived into the histories of the U.S. Marshals’ botched siege at Ruby Ridge. Likewise, the Waco siege that involved the FBI and other agencies and left more than 80 people dead — including dozens of children. Both incidents became formative for anti-government movements in the Pacific Northwest and across the country.
“I’m going to join the army and I’m like, ‘My dad’s up against the FBI. That’s really weird.’ And my dad’s like ‘These guys are dirty to the core, they’re entrapping innocent people,’” Kent said. “I thought maybe it was just a one-off, but the more you go down the rabbit hole of the origins of Ruby Ridge and Waco and all that, it’s like ‘Oh, that’s kind of what these guys do.’”
After the Sept. 11 attacks, Kent charged into conflict. He served 11 combat tours — mostly in Iraq, with deployments in Yemen and north Africa — and won six bronze stars. He rose to the rank of chief warrant officer in the Green Berets. In 2018, he collected his pension and became a paramilitary officer with the CIA.
“He was just born with this DNA,” Chris Kent said. “This genetic imprint. This personality.”
To campaign volunteers, like 73-year-old Thomas Blalock, Kent’s life as a battlefield operator credentials his politics.
“His achievement in the military speaks volumes to his character,” Blalock said. “He’s the elite of the elite.”
Still, his father was surprised when Kent decided to make a run at Congress.
“When he told us that I went, ‘What?’ He never had aspired to any kind of political office,” Chris Kent said. “The complete opposite.”
Kent followed politics, he said — just never out of ambition.
The soldier voted for Bush both times. But eventually he became disaffected by nation-building policies he witnessed, which continued under the Obama administration.
“I remember on my second deployment when we were starting to build a lot of permanent infrastructure in Iraq,” Kent said. “I was like ‘So, this is the plan? We’re staying forever? I don’t get that. That doesn’t jive with what my mission says to do right now. But OK.’”
He drifted toward libertarians like Ron Paul until Trump came along and won him over with promises to end years-long wars — though the war in Afghanistan continued through his administration.
After Kent wed Shannon Smith, a Navy cryptologist, in 2013, they settled into a suburban Maryland home and had two sons. She would ask him if he ever considered taking a D.C. job to work in policy, but he brushed it off. His retirement was to join the CIA.
“I wanted to kind of stay where the rubber meets the road,” Kent said. “We were going to remain pretty much in the shadows.”
Sharron Kearney, a close cousin of Smith’s, recalled an easygoing Kent in those years. With kids of similar age, they often spent time together and discussed current events. Even in debates, she said, Kent remained respectful.
“Current events would definitely come in. I remember having gun rights conversations at their house … specific to assault rifles and stuff like that,” Kearney said. “They sat to the right and my husband and I sat to the left. I actually liked that conversation.”
On Jan. 16, 2019, a suicide bomber sent a blast through a kebab restaurant in the city of Manbij, Syria. Eighteen people died, including Smith and three other Americans. The Islamic State claimed the attack.
Three days later, Kent was standing in a group medical home at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. He was waiting for the plane to land, carrying home his wife’s remains.
As he waited, a well-suited staffer appeared and said Trump was willing to meet families before the caskets landed. Kent was going to speak his mind.
“I kind of lost my give-a-f-ck. If I’m going to get a chance to talk to the president, I don’t care, I’m resigning from the CIA tomorrow,” Kent recalled. “So I felt like this was a moment to actually speak some truth.”
Kent blamed people he believes want to keep America at war no matter who is in the Oval Office. Gen. James Mattis and diplomat Brett McGurk had recently made headlines for resigning after Trump vowed to withdraw from Syria.
The establishment is working against you, Kent remembered telling the president.
“Everything you’re saying flies in the face of everything that they built their careers on,” Kent recalled. “And everything they will continue to build their fortunes on later.”
Today, Kent says his wife is as much a casualty of malignant U.S. foreign policy as a bomb. He says Trump’s plan would have saved her life.
“All my friends, my late wife, we all fought and died and bled because we love the Constitution,” Kent told rallygoers in late August. “My wife would be alive today had Trump not been double-crossed by the establishment.”
St. John and Kent share many overlapping, conservative beliefs. They are both pro-life. They repudiate COVID-19 mandates and gun regulations. And their campaigns are chasing many of the same voters.
But they clash in one important area: Trump’s value in Southwest Washington. And that threatens to split the “Never Herrera Beutler” voting bloc, Kent acknowledged in an interview.
“Any division within the field, it’s something that we inevitably do have to worry about,” he said. “I think right now, at this point, it’s just really about reminding people why the deal was made.”
The deal occurred in March. One night, scores of local conservatives filed into a church in Battle Ground, Washington, to meet a trio of candidates who hoped to unseat Herrera Beutler.
The incumbent was two months removed from her impeachment vote, and fresh off making national headlines for volunteering to testify in the Senate impeachment trial triggered by the Jan. 6 insurrection. Tensions reached the rafters.
“The anger in the room toward Jaime was palpable,” St. John told OPB.
Three candidates took to the dais: St. John, Kent, and Wadi Yakhour, a former staffer at the U.S. Selective Service during the Trump administration.
For an hour, they fielded audience questions. What would they do if elected? How did they feel about replacing the Interstate 5 bridge? What should be done about the region’s homeless population?
Then, Clark County Republican Party Chairman Joel Mattila asked the obvious question. “If former President Trump endorses someone else in this race, will you drop out and support that person?”
Each candidate answered yes. When the endorsement landed, Yakhour bowed out, but St. John stayed put.
Ann Donnelly, a former Clark County Republican Party chairperson who was present that night, said the fracture could threaten both campaigns. Trump’s endorsement could help as much as it hurts, she said.
“Many were supporters of other candidates in 2016,” Donnelly said in an email. “Many who subsequently voted for Trump in the election may not welcome his endorsement now in such an important local race as our 3rd Congressional.”
Indeed, Herrera Beutler outperformed Trump in the district. While the former president eked 51% across the district’s six counties in 2020, she notched 57%. Of her six congressional races, Herrera Beutler has beaten her opponents by double digits all but twice.
The campaign between Kent and St. John has become bitter in recent months.
St. John said in a November interview she doesn’t intend to end her campaign. She accused Kent of smearing her reputation privately to Trump, which the Kent campaign denies. The 51-year-old entrepreneur said she can win over small business owners, Christians and parents.
“I know I’m in it for the right reason. I didn’t get into this race for the Trump endorsement, and I won’t get out because of it,” St. John said. “I don’t think the Trump endorsement carries as much weight as the Kent campaign hopes it will.”
Kent is quick to remind people about the deal. He has also urged supporters to pressure Mattila for not leaning on St. John to quit. Mattila declined to comment for this article.
“We had that agreement,” Kent said. If Trump hadn’t endorsed him, he added, he would have withdrawn. “I would not have done Jaime Herrera Beutler and Kevin McCarthy — and the establishment — the favor of dividing the field like that.”
After the endorsement, St. John sent a broadside. She accused Kent of being a registered Democrat before he moved into the district in the summer of 2020.
It’s true, Kent said, but he describes it as subterfuge. He said he voted for Bernie Sanders to give Trump, a shoo-in for Oregon’s Republican Primary, better odds in the general.
“This is all strategy,” Kent said. “But silly me I was thinking the election was going to be fair.”
As Kent charges from the right, some have voiced concerns about the lengths he’ll go to win a congressional seat.
On stage, he’s become unafraid to deploy unproven theories as rallying cries. He has called COVID-19 a China-designed “vehicle” to suppress freedoms. He has stoked ideas that the FBI set up protesters on Jan. 6 to attack the U.S. Capitol.
In September, Kent spoke at the “Justice for J6” rally in Washington, D.C., arguing for the release of “political prisoners.” His consultant, Braynard, was also the rally’s chief organizer.
Kent didn’t always hold that conviction. He condemned the Capitol attack in an interview with OPB shortly after he filed his candidacy, saying violence and property destruction have no place in protest. He compared it to social justice protests in Portland.
“The second people start throwing bricks through windows, we just have to call that out,” Kent said in February. “I feel the exact same way about the guys who acted violently on January 6. You know, like, what they did was absolutely atrocious and they should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”
About 700 people so far face criminal charges stemming from the Capitol attack. Kent reconciles his earlier statements by saying many haven’t yet had a chance to defend themselves in court and many did not act violently.
“We’ve had months for them to figure out who did something violent that day,” Kent said. “If I’m wrong, fine, I’m wrong, but give them their day in court. That’s really the overall point.”
Another controversial Kent talking point: Joe Biden stole victory in November. Kent recently joined a lawsuit seeking a Maricopa County-style audit of Washington’s election results. He went so far as to call Loren Culp, a failed gubernatorial candidate in Washington, the state’s “actual governor” at an event in September.
Culp lost the election to Gov. Jay Inslee by 13 percentage points.
“For us just to say, ‘Well, the Secretary of State certified it, and the news called it,’ I just don’t think we can accept those answers anymore,” Kent told OPB.
Several elected Republicans declined to comment for this article about whether they had concerns on the direction of Kent’s campaign. Many insisted on seeing how the race shaped up first.
State Sen. Jeff Wilson, R-Longview, the ranking Republican on Washington’s Senate Elections Committee, slammed Kent’s election fraud accusations as falsehoods designed to whip up the most conservative corners of the party.
“Joe, he’s getting to be a really good speaker. But when you get to trial, show me the evidence. Show me the proof,” Wilson said. “I still believe in the truth. When you look at Washington state’s elections, vote-by-mail is a very secure system.”
Of the state’s 4 million votes in the November 2020 election, Washington’s county auditors reported 172 potential cases of ballot fraud to state officials, Wilson said.
Kent’s views have cozied him with far-right figures. In late August, he co-headlined an anti-vaccine event with Patriot Prayer founder Joey Gibson. A week later, he brought Florida Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz to a rally for the Clark County Fairground.
Kent has posed for pictures with Chandler Pappas, who last year carried a semi-automatic rifle through a crowd to counterprotest a vigil for a Black man killed by police in Clark County; and Tusitala “Tiny” Toese, a Proud Boy associate known for brawling in Portland streets.
Stephen Piggott, of the progressive nonprofit Western States Center, said it appeared Kent was “making a concerted effort to organize with, and hang out with, some of the most prominent far-right and anti-Democratic actors in our region.”
“I think that’s definitely troubling,” Piggott said.
It remains to be seen how voters will respond to Kent’s style, and what kind of field they will have before them. At least one Democrat, Brent Hennrich, has filed and is raising money.
As political observers note, any Democrat in the race is going to swallow a considerable number of votes that might otherwise go to Herrera Beutler in a strictly Republican primary. With months to go before the filing deadline, Donnelly guessed other Democrats could join the fracas.
Herrera Beutler will still be the one whom challengers must topple. But the district’s Republicans will have to decide whether they’re still as mad at her as they were months ago.
At the forum in March, the night of the Trump endorsement deal, the moderator had also asked all three candidates if they would support the incumbent if she was going up against a Democrat. Kent and Yakhour said no.
Met with boos that evening, St. John said she would.
“If you’re truly a conservative, you want what’s best for the party,” St. John later said. “I’m not going to elect someone who I know would be bad for the district just because I’m mad at Jaime Herrera Beutler.”