In Washington state, controversial ties and rhetoric are upending a House race
On a recent evening, a crowd was getting riled up during a debate between two candidates vying to represent Washington's 3rd Congressional District.
The debate, hosted by nearby Oregon Public Broadcasting on the campus of Lower Columbia College in Longview, Wash. saw audience outbursts towards the candidates, the moderator and each other.
"No they didn't!" "Fact check! Pinocchio!" "Shush up!"
That's a small sample of what was heard from members of the audience during a gathering that lasted more than an hour.
They were there to see political newcomer, Republican Joe Kent, face off against local business owner, Democrat Marie Gluesenkamp Perez. Their district covers the southwest corner of the state along the Oregon border.
The candidates sparred over reports of Kent's ties to white nationalist groups, among other controversial issues.
This year, Kent ousted Congresswoman Jamie Herrera Beutler, one of ten House Republicans who voted for former President Trump's impeachment. Like others on that list, she drew Trump's ire.
Kent had earned Trump's endorsement, and running on a MAGA-style "America First" platform. He's also aligned himself with some of the more extreme House GOP members, including Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Paul Gosar of Arizona.
The race has highlighted the GOP's tenuous and complicated relationship to popular candidates with controversial ties whose contentious races could help drive turnout.
"He wants to reestablish a white majority," Gluesenkamp Perez charged during one of the debate's most heated discussions over abortion.
"That's not true whatsoever. ...No, that's not true," Kent responded. "She's calling me a racist and misrepresenting what I've said."
A couple days after the debate, during a visit to a Día de los Muertos event at a Vancouver, Wa. church, Gluesenkamp Perez said she was worried about violence spilling out during the heated exchanges.
"The last debate, really at a couple of points, looked like audience members might come to blows," said Gluesenkamp Perez. "It is boiling under the surface and I'm very concerned that we are entirely too sanguine about, frankly, Democratic collapse."
Kent draws controversy, passionate support
In an interview with NPR, Kent downplayed the worries, saying he saw many families in the audience.
"The crowd looked pretty tame," Kent said from a Mediterranean restaurant in Battle Ground, Wa. the next day. "They were raucous, both sides were, but... they're not going to get in a fist fight."
He also rejected reports on his ties to extremists by multiple media outlets, including the Associated Press, CNN and the New York Times. He's also faced questions about his more recent employment, including questions raised by one of his former campaign staffers.
"Absolute garbage journalism," Kent says, referring to one of the first articles reporting on the connections. Other stories that followed, "that's the anatomy of a hit."
Kent moved to Washington's 3rd Congressional District from Oregon in 2020.
An ex-Green Beret who worked for the CIA, Kent entered politics after his wife Shannon Kent, a Navy linguist, was killed in a 2019 attack in Syria.
That's when he met President Trump as he joined other families at Dover Air Force Base to receive the remains of the fallen.
"I mean he was very gracious. I mean, I think he was I think was really gracious of him to come and meet with all the families of the fallen personally," Kent said.
He said the two talked foreign policy one-on-one for 10 to 15 minutes.
"I took the opportunity to just tell him that, 'hey, you're getting the foreign policy piece right like as far as getting us out of the Middle East... But you're being thwarted on all your goals," he said, arguing, "because people deeply entrenched Washington, D.C., they want to stay in the Middle East."
Soon after the father of two returned home to Oregon, he heard from the administration about potential jobs in a second Trump term. Kent said he met with White House Senior Advisor and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner and other officials to discuss possibilities.
However, once those second term plans fell through, Kent weighed a political future for himself in the Pacific Northwest.
Kent, who is running on a Trump-style "America First" platform, has faced his own limits on running to Herrera Beutler's right. A far-right live streamer, Nick Fuentes, took aim at Kent.
"Some of the fiercest attacks I've had came from Nick Fuentes and those guys," he said. "They spent money against me. They launched this whole website that I was some sort of a deep state operative. They sent people to heckle multiple town halls."
Heated rhetoric impacting the race's tenor
Gluesenkamp Perez, a mom who has worked in public service, says it has been challenging to break through the controversies that have taken up much of Washington's Third congressional race.
She's facing a red district, trying to break through to voters with her rural background and ties to a fifth-generation Washington state family. One of her key goals is to draw out voters left abandoned after Herrera Beutler was ousted.
"I'm running this race on my own terms. I'm not here to be a cheerleader for any political party," she told NPR. "I'm here to pay attention to what actually matters to small business owners, to people working in the trades, to people trying to find daycare. You know, working moms like me, that that just need real representation."
Back at the candidate debate, voter Jeff Woll gets emotional when he explains why he's voting for Kent, saying America is falling behind other countries and his district needs someone with military experience to lead it.
"Joe Kent has, I mean, he's as honest as the day is long, and that's why we're supporting him," Woll says, with tears welling up in his eyes. "It's a serious time."
At the Día de Los Muertos event in Vancouver, voter Karen Morrison also gets emotional when she explains why she's voting for Marie Gluesenkamp Perez.
As a Black woman, she said she's worried about Kent's extremist ties.
"I want a peaceful life like everyone else. I want to be able to have my family come here and feel safe and significant in this community," Morrison said. "But with that rhetoric going on, I no longer feel safe."
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