Blue wave threatens to wash away one of GOP’s few Hispanic congresswomen

Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Wash., speaks with constituents at a job fair in 2012. Herrera Beutler, one of several GOP Hispanic women in Congress, is running against Democrat Carolyn Long in the 2018 midterm election.
Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Wash., speaks with constituents at a job fair in 2012. Herrera Beutler, one of several GOP Hispanic women in Congress, is running against Democrat Carolyn Long in the 2018 midterm election. AP

Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, one of the GOP’s three Hispanic congresswomen — and one of its rising stars — is at risk of losing her re-election campaign.

After trouncing her 2016 Democratic opponent in Washington’s 3rd Congressional District by more than 20 percentage points, Herrera Beutler is facing a tougher-than-expected opponent in Carolyn Long, a Democrat who finished within seven percentage points of Herrera Beutler in the state’s August primary.

Herrera Beutler, first elected to the House of Representatives in 2010, is one of two Hispanic Republican women who can vote in Congress. A third, Jenniffer González-Colón, represents Puerto Rico and does not have a vote. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Florida, the first Hispanic woman to ever serve in Congress, is retiring.

Herrera Beutler is in danger, as fired-up voters and President Donald Trump’s low approval ratings buoy Democratic candidates’ chances nationwide.

After the Washington state primary, Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a nonpartisan site that rates congressional races, changed the race from “safe Republican” to “leans Republican,” one step away from a toss-up. Kyle Kondik, the site’s managing editor, predicts a “pretty close race” in the general election.

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“There are going to be Republican incumbents who feel the heat in this election in ways they haven’t” in years past, Kondik said. “That really just has to do with the national environment.” Democrats need a net gain of 23 seats to win control of the House.

Kondik did not see the seat as a key target for Democrats heading into the election year, but now said the party can be emboldened because the combined vote for Democratic candidates in the primary was about 49 percent. That surprising statistic points to high Democratic enthusiasm, he said, and the question heading into the general election is whether that energy will be maintained.

“I think it probably will, but maybe Republicans will catch up a little bit,” he said.

Long’s strong showing prompted the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to add her to its Red to Blue program, which “arms top-tier candidates with organizational and fundraising support to help them continue to run strong campaigns.”

The DCCC has not yet spent money on Long’s race, and DCCC spokeswoman Amanda Sherman would not say why, or provide specifics on funding decisions.

The DCCC is “making all funding decisions on a rolling basis right now,” she said.

Long, an associate professor of political science at Washington State University Vancouver, said the Red to Blue involvement was “signaling to donors nationally that this is competitive.” She’s since seen some out-of-state donations.

Long was also endorsed by EMILY’s List, a political action committee that works to elect pro-choice women. She said she’s not relying completely on such support.

“I’m not counting on a blue wave. I’m counting on a Carolyn Long wave,” she said. “To hope that the generic ballot and hope that Trump’s popularity gets you across the finish line is a very small part of the story.”

Herrera Beutler thinks her hometown story — she’s a native of the area — and focus on local issues, such as unemployment and the economy, will resonate with voters, even in a tough national environment for Republicans.

“(National issues are) definitely something my opponent is using to her advantage,” Herrera Beutler said. “But if we’re actually talking about issues here that are specific to this region, I feel like it is much more where people’s hearts and minds are at.”

As one of the few Hispanic Republican women in Congress, Herrera Beutler said she brings up issues others might not consider.

“Being a young mom, being a Hispanic, that adds a perspective that I think my party needs at the table, quite frankly,” she said.

For instance, in 2016, she led an effort to convince the Food and Drug Administration to counter serious birth defects by allowing folic acid to be added to corn flour masa, a staple in Hispanic communities. The FDA had already been enriching wheat and rice flours for decades.

Rep. Mario Díaz-Balart, R-Fla., chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Conference, said he would “never bet against” Herrera Beutler.

“I believe that her worth is not because she’s a woman, not because she’s a Latina, (but) because she’s very talented and works hard,” he said, adding that she has a reputation for being willing to reach across the aisle to work with Democrats.

Georgetown University’s Lugar Center, which tracks bipartisanship, listed Herrera Beutler as the 15th most bipartisan representative in the House in 2017, and FiveThirtyEight’s Trump Score tracker shows she votes in line with the president’s position 91 percent of the time, less often than about 180 of her colleagues. But she also drew headlines in Washington for supporting a failed border wall funding bill in June that nearly half of the House Republicans opposed.

Even if Long wins, there’s a chance the GOP will elect other Hispanic women this fall. Tucson Hispanic Chamber of Commerce CEO Lea Márquez Peterson is battling former Arizona Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, a Democrat, for Arizona’s 2nd Congressional District seat, which Sabato’s Crystal Ball says “leans Democratic.”

Márquez Peterson is “going to bring some of that same female Hispanic, Latina perspective to the table,” Herrera Beutler said. “So I am looking forward to the reinforcements.”

In Florida, Cuban-American television journalist Maria Salazar, a Republican, is vying with Democrat Donna Shalala, a former Clinton administration Health and Human Services Secretary, for Ros-Lehtinen’s seat.

Sabato’s Crystal Ball lists that district as “leans Democratic” as well.

Ros-Lehtinen disagreed. “Pundits say that my race is over because Hillary Clinton won (the district) by 20 points,” she said. “However, those pundits have not met Maria Elvira Salazar. She is a firebrand, she’s poised, she’s intelligent. She’s telegenic, she knows the issues, and I think they will change their calculations soon.”

Kellen Browning, 202-383-6102, @kellen_browning

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated who won the vote in Herrera-Beutler’s district in the 2016 presidential race. Donald Trump won the district.