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May 29, 2024

One of 2022’s closest House races is primed for a rematch — with a fight over the GOP’s future first

One of 2022’s closest House races is primed for a rematch — with a fight over the GOP’s future first

The House seat representing southwest Washington state is among Republicans’ top targets to expand their slim majority in the 2024 elections — if they can nominate a candidate who can win.

Former GOP Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler represented the area for over a decade, but a year after she voted to impeach President Donald Trump, she lost her 2022 GOP primary to Joe Kent, an Army veteran who had challenged her from the right.

Kent then lost the general election to Democrat Marie Gluesenkamp Perez in a campaign that focused on Kent’s right-wing ties — even as the GOP’s Senate candidate, Tiffany Smiley, carried the same district by 8 points. (Smiley lost to the Democratic incumbent, Patty Murray.)

Kent is running for the seat again this year, hoping for an opposite result, but Camas City Council member Leslie Lewallen hopes to take that spot on the general election ballot for herself. She is pitching herself as a Republican who is more palatable to the district’s voters.

“Joe Kent had his opportunity in 2022. He lost. He’ll lose again, by an even wider margin,” Lewallen told NBC News during a trip to Washington, D.C.

She added that she worries that if Kent and Gluesenkamp Perez are on the general election ballot again, “we could lose this seat for a very long time and we could lose the majority in the House of Representatives.”

“There’s frankly just too much at stake. We should never have lost that seat,” Lewallen said.

A tough path to beat Kent in the primary

Across the country in 2022, Republicans blamed the absence of a “red wave” on poor candidate quality, pointing to Kent as an example.

Kent questioned the integrity of the 2020 election, called Jan. 6 defendants “political prisoners” and attended a “Justice for J6” rally organized by one of his advisers. The Associated Press also investigated his ties to far-right groups during the campaign.

But Republicans in the state and nationally say Kent’s place on the general election ballot this year is almost a foregone conclusion, with Lewallen’s campaign struggling to define a clear path to finishing ahead of him in the top-two primary.

“Joe Kent has the support of all seven county Republican Parties in [the district] and also the Washington State Republican Party,” Kent’s campaign said in a statement, adding, “Grassroots and mainstream voters in the district are unified in support of replacing the extreme Democrat incumbent with common sense conservative, Joe Kent.”

A national Republican strategist said Lewallen “seems like a good candidate with a nice bio, but the question is can she win the primary? From what we’ve seen of her campaign so far, it doesn’t look likely.”

In the first three months of 2024, Kent raised just over $225,000, while Lewallen raised just over $193,000. That’s a closer spread than in the last quarter of 2023, but Kent is still outraising Lewallen. And both paled in comparison to Gluesenkamp Perez, who raised over $850,000 in the same period.

Meanwhile, the state Republican Party decided to officially endorse Kent last year.

“This is politics,” said the party’s chair, Jim Walsh, adding, “Nothing is ever certain, certain, certain, but Kent’s path looks pretty clear.”

Above all, Walsh said, Republicans in the state and the district should be focused on beating Gluesenkamp Perez.

He pointed to what he thought should be the biggest issue in the race: “Dissatisfaction with Marie Perez’s track record” in Congress.

“While Perez has a very effective PR campaign and operation and gets lots of photo ops, the fact is her voting record is really not representative of what Washington’s 3rd’s values are,” Walsh added.

Democrats are convinced that Kent will be their opponent in November and hope to run a campaign similar to the one that defeated him in 2022.

“Joe Kent will be my opponent in the general election, and I invite Republicans and conservatives who can’t stomach Joe Kent’s angry, dangerous, divisive view of the world to support my campaign instead, like they did in 2022,” Gluesenkamp Perez said in a statement.

Marching forward

But Lewallen isn’t mounting her campaign alone. She’s backed by many of the strategists who worked on Smiley’s campaign in 2022, as well as Smiley herself.

Winning for Women, a national group that backs female Republicans running for office, has endorsed Lewallen, too. The group’s super PAC has spent millions of dollars supporting female GOP candidates in recent elections.

“The choice here is simple: If Leslie is our nominee, Republicans win back this seat. Joe Kent has already shown he cannot win, and nominating him effectively guarantees two more years of Marie Gluesenkamp Perez, a liberal extremist who is out of touch with the voters of this district,” WFW Action Fund Executive Director Danielle Barrow said in a statement.

Barrow added that the group raised over $40,000 for Lewallen in a single event in the first quarter of this year and that it already has additional fundraisers planned for the second quarter.

So far this year, a few GOP House candidates who lost swing seats in 2022 have failed in repeat runs. In Ohio, J.R. Majewski, who was seeking a rematch against Democratic Rep. Marcy Kaptur, dropped out before this year’s primary amid a cascade of unflattering news stories and other revelations.

And in North Carolina, far-right candidate Sandy Smith lost a GOP primary this year to retired Army Col. Laurie Buckhout, who was backed by an outside group tied to House Republican leadership. Smith, the GOP nominee in 2022, lost to Democratic Rep. Don Davis.

But every race is different.

Lewallen said she found Kent’s 2022 campaign “very frustrating” because he “did not talk about anything important to southwest Washington.

“The entire campaign focused on this Washington instead of our Washington,” she said. “I want to move forward. I think most of Americans want to move forward. They want to see what’s broken get fixed. They want to elect members of Congress who are there to govern and to not play the performative politics.” 

Alexandra Marquez

Alexandra Marquez is a politics reporter for NBC News.

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