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After Speaking Out On Impeachment, Herrera Beutler Heads Toward Clash With Her Party

Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, a Republican, has faced mixed reactions in her Washington state congressional district for her support of former President Donald Trump's impeachment. Above, Herrera Beutler speaks as the House debates an objection to the Electoral College vote in January.
Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, a Republican, has faced mixed reactions in her Washington state congressional district for her support of former President Donald Trump's impeachment. Above, Herrera Beutler speaks as the House debates an objection to the Electoral College vote in January.

Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler thrust herself into the national spotlight on Friday when the Washington Republican came out with a stunning account of Donald Trump's actions on the day of the Capitol insurrection. In a statement put out on the eve of the vote in Trump's Senate impeachment trial, Herrera Beutler said that House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy told her that in a conversation with the then-president on Jan. 6, Trump appeared to side with the mob, telling him the rioters were "more upset about the election than you are."

For most Republicans, particularly those in ruby-red districts, the statement would seem to doom any hope of avoiding a primary challenge and winning reelection. But for Herrera Beutler, a Republican in deep blue Washington state, the potential ramifications may not be so straightforward.

While it's too early to tell how the majority of her constituents may respond come next year's midterm elections, donors and political experts said on Saturday that Herrera Beutler's independent streak may actually serve to strengthen her hold on southwest Washington.

"I could see a primary in 2022 where Republicans put forward a very clear Trump candidate. Her weakness will be on the right," said Mark Stephan, an associate professor of political science at Washington State University. "But I think there will be Democrats who will vote for her because they felt she acted courageously in this case."

Some donors have already begun lining up to reward the six-term congresswoman for breaking ranks to speak out against the former president, according to one wealthy benefactor. Her account of McCarthy's conversation with Trump on Jan. 6, first reported by a local newspaper in Washington last month, was entered as evidence Saturday in the Senate impeachment trial of the former president.

"It's another demonstration of tremendous principle and personal courage," said David Nierenberg, a career investor who lives in Camas, Wash. Nierenberg, a close friend and former colleague of Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, is also one of the largest political donors in Washington state.

"I have told Jaime ... I will do everything that I can do to raise contributions for her, not only from people I know in this district, not only people throughout the Pacific Northwest, but many friends all around the country," Nierenberg said.

That financial call to arms comes as moderate Republicans like Nierenberg anticipate a confrontation with their districts' Trump supporters. As senators spent part of Saturday debating whether to call Herrera Beutler as an impeachment witness, she was already coming under criticism from ardent Trump supporters like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, who warned on Twitter that Trump voters "are watching."

Winning in a purple district

Southwest Washington, once a reliably blue Democratic stronghold composed of middle-class, blue-collar workers, has become more purple in recent years as jobs have dwindled. The state's 3rd District, which Herrera Beutler represents, encompasses seven counties, as well as parts of an eighth, and largely favored Trump in both 2016 and 2020.

Rural stretches of the district may favor Trump, but its most populous county, Clark County, overlaps with the Portland, Ore., metropolitan area. Its population has grown in recent years and still consistently skews Democratic. President Biden won Clark County by 5 percentage points.

Nierenberg said he's receiving calls from peers locally, regionally and nationally who want to support Herrera Beutler should she run again in 2022.

"There should be no question that Jaime will be capable of running a very well-financed and well-focused campaign," said Nierenberg, who gave $11,200 to Herrera Beutler's reelection campaign last fall.

"If her potential adversaries want to make character and ethics among their issues, I would just say they should be very careful what they wish for," he said.

"They feel betrayed"

Herrera Beutler electrified her constituents a month ago when she joined nine other Republicans in the House to break ranks and vote to impeach Trump on the charge of inciting the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

Outcry erupted among Republican organizations that still supported Trump. Clark County Republican Women said Herrera Beutler would "never receive our votes or support again."

The day after the impeachment vote, Joel Mattila, chair of the Clark County Republican Party, said his phone had been "blowing up all day long from old party regulars to just your average voters, and there is a lot of disappointment."

Reached by phone Saturday, Mattila said Herrera Beutler's latest moves continue to frustrate conservatives.

"She's obviously doubling down," he said. "Not only did she vote to impeach, but she became the star witness in the Democrats' impeachment charade."

Mattila couldn't say whether any conservative candidates could emerge to challenge Herrera Beutler, but he said someone certainly will — calling it a "foregone conclusion."

"They feel betrayed," he said of local conservatives. "They feel betrayed by what the congresswoman has been doing over the last month and a half."

Winning over centrists

Herrera Beutler has proved a political heavyweight in the district. First elected in 2010, she has regularly won elections by double digits. Her closest race was in 2018 against Democratic challenger Carolyn Long, whom she beat by 5 points. But Herrera Beutler won the 2020 rematch by 13 points.

Washington state has an open, top-two primary system, meaning two candidates of the same party could theoretically advance to the general election.

Stephan of Washington State University said Herrera Beutler is likely making up for any lost conservative voters by picking up more centrists. He said he expected that the ramifications of her stance on impeachment will likely take shape in the year ahead.

Now that Herrera Beutler has been so vocal in Trump's second impeachment, said Stephan, her future, as well as that of other Republicans who broke ranks, will likely be inversely influenced by Trump's control over the Republican Party.

"That could serve her incredibly well in the years ahead if the party decides it needs to go in a new direction from where it's been the last four years," he said. "Or this could put her in this very distinct minority that is just left to the margins."

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting