House GOP star among Republicans facing unexpected challenge

Associated Press

Cathy McMorris Rodgers has never lost a race in her U.S. House district in Washington. The Republican has never even received less than 56 percent of the vote.

So it did not go unnoticed when the national GOP set up shop in Spokane 10 months before Election Day to help bolster her bid for an eighth term. The GOP's move is a reminder that, with President Trump in the White House , once-safe Republicans may need all the help they can get.

McMorris Rodgers, the only woman in House GOP leadership, has joined the group of Republican lawmakers unexpectedly scrambling for political survival this year. Trump's low approval ratings — and rising Democratic enthusiasm — have many Republicans braced for a beating in the midterm elections in November. The worry has spread from swing districts to areas once considered out of reach for Democrats : eastern Kansas, suburban Minneapolis, corners of Texas and even the eastern Washington district held by a Republican for nearly 25 years.

McMorris Rodgers has drawn a tough challenger in former state Democratic Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown , who served for 20 years in the Legislature representing Spokane. Brown has seized on McMorris Rodgers' alignment with Trump to cast her as out of touch with the district. She's raising more money than previous Democratic challengers, and the national party has promised additional resources.

The non-partisan Elway Poll reported in January that in eastern Washington, a generic Republican candidate for Congress beats a generic Democrat by just four points, "hinting at vulnerability" for McMorris Rogers.

Brown is "far and away the most high-quality opponent Democrats have ever recruited in the district," said Chris Vance, a former state GOP chairman, who notes that a Democratic surge could swamp McMorris Rodgers.

"This is all about Trump and it depends how big an anti-Trump wave is out there," Vance said.

Washington's 5th Congressional District hugs the Idaho border and is dominated by Spokane, the state's second-largest city. The area has been reliably Republican since George Nethercutt's shocking defeat of Democratic House Speaker Tom Foley in 1994. Trump easily beat Hillary Clinton here in 2016, 52 percent to 39 percent.

Outside of Spokane, the sprawling district is mostly rural and home to farmers harvesting wheat, lentils and other products. While unemployment is low in much of Washington state, the counties along the Canadian border in the 5th District have long struggled with high jobless rates as logging and other extraction industries have declined.

McMorris Rodgers spent more than a decade in the state Legislature before winning the 5th District seat in an open 2004 election when Nethercutt ran unsuccessfully for the Senate. Known for her conservative social views like opposition to same-sex marriage, McMorris Rodgers chairs the House Republican Conference and is the fourth highest-ranking Republican in the chamber.

McMorris Rodgers, 48, believes her national profile helps her deliver good results for the district, said Ashley Stubbs, campaign spokeswoman. Stubbs disputed the notion that the incumbent is on the defensive.

"The voters have consistently turned out for Cathy," she said. "The only person who thinks Lisa is formidable is Nancy Pelosi ,"referring to the House Minority Leader.

While the GOP dismisses the Democrats' chances, the party is taking Brown seriously. House Speaker Paul Ryan's Congressional Leadership Fund has opened a field office, one of more than two dozen in districts where GOP incumbents face a tough battle.

In late February, McMorris Rodgers met with four Gonzaga University students and their teacher to discuss immigration issues. The students had returned from a trip to the Mexican border region. The congresswoman, who supports many of Trump's immigration proposals, listened as the students shared their experiences.

"My goal is a secure border," McMorris Rodgers told the students during the hour-long meeting in her district office in Spokane.

Immigration is an issue in the agriculture-rich 5th District, as are gun rights and efforts to prevent the breaching of four dams on the Snake River to help endangered salmon migrate more easily to the Pacific Ocean. McMorris Rodgers will also tout the tax bill as a major accomplishment.

She has been blistered by opponents for voting dozens of times to kill the Affordable Care Act. Many people in the relatively poor district depend on the program.

The incumbent is prepared to take on Brown over taxes, noting her challenger voted for tax increases as a legislator and backed the idea of a state income tax, something voters have been wary of.

McMorris Rodgers in recent times has been reluctant to meet with constituents in open forums, preferring tightly scripted events. The incumbent was booed during a Martin Luther King Day speech in Spokane, in part for her votes to dismantle the Affordable Care Act.

Brown, 61, said the idea of running for Congress gained momentum after Trump's election.

"When the House passed the health care bill and they had a party in the Rose Garden, at that moment I really knew," Brown said of launching her campaign.

Brown said her priorities would include access to health care and cheaper costs for college. McMorris Rodgers has become disconnected from her constituents as her national profile has risen, Brown said.

"She is serving the House Republican Party talking points," Brown said.

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