Can business owner Marie Perez defeat ‘extreme’ Trump-backed candidate in critical contest?

Democrats last won rural conservative seat in 2008, but small business owner tells Andrew Buncombe in Vancouver, Washington, this year will different

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Democrat Marie Perez says her campaign to defeat Joe Kent, a hardline conservative backed by Donald Trump, is running on “jet fuel”.

She says the scrapping of Roe by the Supreme Court has led to a surge in support for her campaign, especially among women and young people.

And she suggests Trump’s efforts to punish and oust the 10 Republican members of Congress who voted to impeach him may very well backfire.

WhileKent overcame moderate Republican Jaime Herrera Beutler in the open primary in August, many mainstream conservatives in Washington’s Third Congressional District are now faced with a dilemma – do they back a Republican candidate she says is too extreme, sit out the election, or opt to back her and deliver Democrats their first victory here since 2008?

She claims many moderate Republicans, along with independents, are backing her campaign and she is set to make history. Her campaign says their chances of winning would be much reduced if Herrera Beutler were still the Republican candidate.

“The campaign is running on jet fuel right now. We’re really excited. There’s so much grassroots enthusiasm,” she tells The Independent.

“We’ve had over 900 people submit volunteer forms, and we hit 2,300 doors last Sunday. People are really working hard to protect democracy in our district.”

She adds: “I think we have an incredible chance here, and I think the polling is backing that up.”

All campaigns talk up their chances of winning and every commissioned poll that points to pieces of information they can use.

Kent, 42, a former Green Beret whose wife was killed by an Isis bomb in Syria, has similarly insisted he is going to be sent to Washington DC to represent this district in southwest Washington state, where he has vowed to pursue a Maga-imbued America first strategy that would prioritise job creation, energy independence and what he has called medical freedom.

Often Kent has expressed those ideas in striking terms, raging against “the tyrants” behind lockdowns and mask mandates, and has called for the arrest of Dr Antony Fauci.

Perez, 34, the mother of a young son, and the owner of an auto-repair business in southwest Washington, has sought to present herself in stark contrast to Kent.

At town hall meetings and Zoom events, she has stressed local issues – the need for better internet service, investment in jobs that pay working families a living wage, and the need to protect abortion rights.

She has talked about working-class roots and said Congress has too many lawyers and doctors.

On a sunny Sunday morning in Vancouver, Washington, located about 150 miles south of Seattle, Perez was stopping to meet people among the fruit and vegetable stalls, with vendors selling everything from dried mushrooms to coffee.

She was accompanied by a five-year-old black alsatian, named Uma Furman.

Echoing the comments of Beto O’Rourke in Texas, Perez says her campaign saw a surge in interest in volunteers after the Supreme Court in June overturned Roe v Wade, the 1973 judgment that two generations of women had relied upon to access safe and legal abortions.

“There was a sea change. Many of us had questioned whether or not women and Democrats and independents and moderate Republicans would sit on the couch in this race in the midterms, or whether they would show up and vote,” she says.

“And it’s clear that a lot of women are really on fire. And working to protect our rights.”

Perez has said she wants to boost the development and support of various trades in the region, and that some Democrats have for too long been scornful of people who make a living with their hands.

She says that has to stop, adding that Trump seized on the sense of elitism espoused by some of her colleagues in the party when he swept to power in 2016. She says most people in the largely rural district are focused on jobs and the state of the economy, alongside threats to democracy such as what happened at the Capitol on 6 January, and which the likes of Beutler and Liz Cheney were punished for trying to confront.

Given Biden’s modest approval ratings, the area’s conservative history and the fact that the party that controls the White House typically does badly in the midterms, Perez has often claimed she is independent of Washington DC and the broader Democratic Party.

If the president offered to come and campaign for her, would she like that?

“I deeply value my independence. And I think it’s really important that we have independent voices in Congress and people walking down the middle,” she says. “What I’m focused on right now is ensuring that Americans in our districts are being heard and listened to and acted on.”

Perez says a poll conducted for her campaign by Expedition Strategies – which the campaign shared with The Independent on the company’s letterhead – gave her a 47-45 lead over Kent.

She claims once voters are given more information about Kent’s positions, her potential lead over him increases to 52 to 40, with 7 per cent of voters undecided.

The polling shows Kent has considerably more name recognition than Perez – 75 to 45 – but the research document claims more voters are “unfavourable (39 per cent ) to [Kent] than are favourable (36 per cent), including 30 per cent who say they are very unfavourable towards him”.

On the streets of Vancouver, or in a park on the edge of the city where volunteers are being dispatched to knock on doors armed with yard signs and flyers, it is not difficult to find people who say they’re going to vote for her.

Johanna Barron, 48, an educator says she will certainly be voting Democrat.

“I care about the environment and I care about abortion rights,” she says.

Amber Hargreaves, 38, a librarian, says she moved to Washington state a month ago and she and her boyfriend rapidly registered to vote. “People were telling us this was going to be important,” she says, adding she will vote for Perez.

A retired couple who asked to be identified as Terry and Brenda said they were moderate Republicans who disliked Trump and had previously voted for Beutler. They said there was no way they would be voting for Kent.

“If we vote for Joe Kent we will just be voting for Trump,” says Terry. Brenda adds: “We’ll be voting for Perez.”

But it might be a dangerous temptation for Perez’s supporters to get too carried away.

Once you leave the centre of this small city and head east or north, it appears there are more yard signs for Joe Kent than there are for Marie Perez. In both 2018 and 2020, Democrats thought they had a good chance of beating Beutler when college professor Carolyn Long put up a good fight but was eventually beaten by a shuddering 56 to 40 in the last effort.

In the 2020 presidential election, Trump easily beat Biden in five of the seven counties that make up the Third District, with Democrats only showing much-concentrated strength in Clark County, centred on the city of Vancouver, the most purple dot in a sea of red.

And while the non-partisan Cook Political Report recently moved the third from “solid Republican” to “leans Republican” after Kent became the party’s candidate, the analysis site FiveThirtyEight currently suggests Kent has a 96 per cent chance of winning, compared to four per cent for Perez. It predicts Republicans will clean up by a margin of 56-43.

There is also the issue of money.

While the campaign’s most recent financial reports are yet to be collated, in the previous report Kent collected a total of $2.25m compared to her $240,000.

Kent has attacked Perez as being typical of “big spend Democrats” and has suggested he would not wish to add to inflation by supporting more infrastructure bills. He has also alleged that Perez’s repair shop posted a sign during the protests for racial justice, offering free repairs for leaf blowers.

(Leaf blowers were reportedly used by protesters – termed antifa by Kent – to dissipate teargas. Perez says the post on Instagram was made by a former employee, that she has no records of repairing leaf blowers, and that the attacks are a sign of Kent’s desperation.)

The pair have debated once already and are set to have a second event on Saturday.

Given Democrats have not won in this conservative district since 2008, what makes the Democrat so confident she is going to be different?

“I’m the only moderate running. I am a small business owner and work in the trades,” says Perez, whose campaign website shows her dressed in a mechanic’s overalls.

“Everybody’s really focused on the economy and what we can do to rebuild it, to shore up our supply, and to rebuild American manufacturing. This is not a hobby of mine or a political interest of mine. This is the life that I live in.”

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