After House Speaker Paul Ryan announced his retirement last week, it looks as if there may be another Republican leader who may not return to Congress next year as well.
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Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, fourth-ranking in leadership and highest-ranking Republican woman in the House, is facing one of the toughest re-election challenges of her career as Democrats fight to retake control of the lower chamber.
The Washington state Republican, who’s running for an eighth term, has a strong challenger in Democrat Lisa Brown, a former state lawmaker and university chancellor who’s shown impressive fundraising numbers for a novice congressional candidate.
Brown has raised almost $650,000 in the first quarter of 2018 and has raised $1.26 million in her contest to date. She has about $836,000 cash on hand, according to Federal Election Commission records.
But McMorris Rodgers posted some of the best fundraising numbers of her career on Monday.
She raised almost $777,000 this quarter for her reelection bid but has raised $2.7 million thus far for her campaign. She also has $1.5 million cash on hand — more than Brown has raised to date.
However, that doesn’t mean she’s out of danger, particularly since her ties to Republican leadership could tie her to President Donald Trump in the mind of voters.
“I think there is a chance Lisa Brown could win this race,” said Travis Ridout, a political science professor at Washington State University, told ABC News. “Right now, would I bet on her? I’m not saying that. But there’s a type of energy we haven’t seen from a campaign, really, in the 15 years I’ve lived in the district.”
He added: “In past years, most people wouldn’t have been able to name the Democratic candidate.”
Brown said her time as majority leader in the state Senate and her travels in the district give her an advantage over previous Democratic challengers.
She noted to ABC News that she represented the district for 20 years in the state House and said of McMorris Rodgers: “I think after 14 years, there’s a sense that she’s gone Beltway and is out of touch with the priorities of the district.”
The McMorris Rodgers campaign said they had confidence voters knew her work for the district.
“We’re confident families will vote for her leadership rooted in Eastern Washington to cut taxes, help veterans, and protect Fairchild and reject what the Cook Political Report described as Sen. [Lisa] Brown’s ‘very liberal voting record in Olympia, including fighting to raise taxes and tuition hikes,’” said McMorris Rodgers campaign spokesman Nate Hodson.
Meanwhile, Brown wouldn’t commit to supporting Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., for Democratic Leader should she win in November.
“I’m going to wait and see, hopefully in January when I’m there, I’m going to wait and see who is running for leadership,” Brown told ABC News Monday. “I will vote for the person who I think I could most work with on behalf of Eastern Washington.”
McMorris Rodgers is campaigning like she has a contest and a competitive one at that.
In addition to the strong fundraising numbers, she has held multiple town halls: four alone during the last Congressional recess, for a total of 38 since August 2013, according to her campaign.
The Congressional Leadership Fund, a powerful GOP super PAC supported by Ryan, has opened an office in the district to aide McMorris Rodgers.
The non-partisan Cook Report recently changed the rating of the race from a solid Republican seat to a lean Republican seat. It may sound like a small change but it sent waves through the political community given the district’s previous deep red ranking.
“They’re either very prepared or very scared or both,” Ridout said of McMorris Rodgers’ campaign.
The amount of danger she’s in is up for debate. A big blue wave on Election Day could end her time in Washington like it would for many other Republicans but an ABC News/Washington Post poll out Monday showed the Democratic advantage in the 2018 election has narrowed, with indications of lower engagement among their voting bloc.
“I really don’t think she’ll have a problem,” said Peter Graves, a GOP consultant in the state who was also a former staffer at the Republican National Committee. “She hasn’t had a real race since she’s been elected.”
He did concede that the current political environment made it tough on Republicans in general.
“Doesn’t matter what district you’re in, you’re going to have a closer race than you’ve ever had because of the environment. It’s a smart thing for her to do — to get out in front of things, kind of reintroduce herself to people,” he said.
Republicans also argue Brown’s legislative record in the state House is too liberal for the district.
“I think that what’s really significant is what I’ve accomplished in healthcare and in the economy for Eastern Washington,” Brown said in response to those claims.
Washington’s 5th Congressional District, in the eastern part of the state, is a mix of parts of Spokane with a heavy farming country. Wheat is the main industry. Trump won the district by 13 points in 2016.
But, as Democrats are quick to point out, Trump won Pennsylvania’s 18th Congressional District by 20 points and Democrat Conor Lamb won the special election for the seat in March.
That victory and other special election wins give Democrats hope that a blue wave is coming that will get them the 23 seats they need to retake control of the House of Representatives.
And winning McMorris Rodgers’ seat not only gives them bragging rights of taking out a Republican leader but they would also win back the seat Democratic Speaker Tom Foley lost in 1994 and has been held by Republicans ever since.
Trade is one of the big issues in the district given the high number of wheat farmers, and it’s a crop that would be hurt under China’s threat of trade tariffs.
McMorris Rodgers wrote a column in a local paper noting she supports Trump’s economic agenda but added, “it’s essential that we do more to prioritize trade agreements and pursue smart trade policies that allow people here in Eastern Washington to access the worldwide marketplace.”
Brown, who told Spokane Public Radio she wants to be on the House Agriculture Committee, added that tariffs are a huge issue for the district.
“Farmers are really concerned about the tariffs, the possibility of a trade war and the lack of a farm bill,” Brown said. “They are concerned that the current Congress has not been strong enough in relation to the administration to really advocate for farm country.”