Jul. 14—A November victory would keep Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers in Congress for a 20th year, but two Democrats positioning themselves separately within the party are vying for the likely spot to challenge the longtime congresswoman in the fall.
Natasha Hill, a 39-year-old local attorney and Hillyard native, and Ann Marie Danimus, a 51-year-old marketing professional with ties to the region's rural reaches, have both filed as Democrats to unseat McMorris Rodgers, 53, who's seeking a 10th term in Washington, D.C., representing the state's 5th Congressional district.
Sean Clynch, a 60-year-old substitute teacher and Army veteran, rounds out the primary ballot as a Republican.
On the issues: See where the four candidates in the August primary for Eastern Washington's seat in Congress stand on abortion, the conflict in Ukraine, guns and more.
McMorris Rodgers said she hopes re-election and the likely return to power for the GOP in the House of Representatives would make her the chair of the House's Energy and Commerce Committee, which handles policies dealing with hydropower, gas production, technology and health care.
"It's the committee that's at the forefront of many of the people of Eastern Washington," McMorris Rodgers said, citing plans to work on legislation addressing rural access to high-speed internet, additional paths to employment for those with disabilities and increasing accountability for technology firms for policing of speech.
Her opponents, especially the Democrats, say they'll bring new ideas to directly help the people living in the district and accused McMorris Rodgers of being beholden to her political party above voters.
Hill and Danimus are running in a district that hasn't given their party more than 45% of the general election vote since McMorris Rodgers was first elected in 2004. Both said they were trying to differentiate themselves while keeping the focus of the race on defeating the incumbent in November.
"I am more progressive, she is more moderate," Hill said of Danimus. "I think she's going to appeal to some people that may not give me a chance."
Hill has earned endorsements from former state senator and previous District 5 candidate Lisa Brown, along with state lawmakers Andy Billig, Marcus Riccelli and Timm Ormsby. She's also received endorsements from local labor groups, including Teamsters Joint Council 28, which covers Washington, Alaska and North Idaho, and the Washington State Labor Council.
Danimus did not dismiss the moderate label.
"I think that when it comes to the things we can all agree on, I am the one that is delivering that message for the 5th," she said. "And I, personally, do not want to go from a congresswoman who represents one half of the district to a congresswoman that represents the other half of the district."
Danimus has received endorsements from the 6th Legislative District Democrats, the Pend Oreille County Democrats and former state Rep. Dennis Dellwo.
"I think we have the shared goal of bringing in as many people as we can with us to vote Democrat, and get Cathy out of office," said Hill, who's previously served as a Democratic representative on the county's redistricting panel following the 2020 census and been a vocal proponent of policing reforms in Spokane and nationwide.
Danimus, who owns her own marketing firm and ran unsuccessfully as an independent for a state Senate seat in 2020, has launched a prolific social media campaign that often targets McMorris Rodgers and her voting record.
"It is a compare and contrast, in the sense of, here is your current leadership, and she has been there for almost two decades now," Danimus said. "Here's the things that aren't working."
That included sharing a statement from Rep. Liz Cheney, the Wyoming Republican who replaced McMorris Rodgers as chair of the House Republican Conference in 2018 and is serving as one of two GOP members on the Jan. 6 commission investigating former President Donald Trump's involvement in the attack on the U.S. Capitol. Hill, too, criticized McMorris Rodgers for being the only member of Congress in Washington state to vote against the formation of the panel in May 2021.
McMorris Rodgers stood by that vote last week, calling the commission hearings that have focused on Trump's pressure on public officials to illegally overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election, "not set up for success."
"I don't believe the way that it was structured, the members that were appointed to the commission, will be successful in really exploring the facts of what happened Jan. 6," the congresswoman said.
Democrats, after a vote to create the panel passed the House of Representatives with 35 Republicans voting for it but stalled by filibuster in the Senate, moved forward with an inquiry in the House of Representatives. Democratic and Republican leaders could not agree on the composition of that panel because three of the GOP picks had voted to overturn the election results. McMorris Rodgers initially indicated she would vote to begin the process of overturning the election results showing Joe Biden winning the 2020 presidential contest , but changed her vote to certify the results after the violent attack on the Capitol.
Clynch, who's served in humanitarian missions overseas before returning to the Spokane area, said he'd voted for McMorris Rodgers in the past, but also voted for President Barack Obama. He said he was mainly driven to run against the congresswoman because she'd been "a little weak on the border."
"I think the border, and the illegal immigration, I think it's driving a lot of the discontent in the country," Clynch said. His campaign platform includes a call for "removal of all undocumented immigrants to their home country," a position even further than many immigration hawks in Congress have taken.
Clynch agreed with the Democrats in the race on several issues, however, which he said could be a consequence of once interning for former U.S. Rep. Eva Clayton, D-N.C., after his military service. Clynch, Hill and Danimus expressed a willingness to push for forgiveness of some student loans, an idea that has been floated in Congress and by Biden but has yet to receive a formal vote on the floor.
McMorris Rodgers indicated she'd vote against such legislation.
"I believe that's only going to make inflation worse," the congresswoman said, adding that taxpaying citizens should not be required to pay off debts accrued willingly by those who chose to go to college.
Hill, a single mother with debt from law school in California, said Congress should go even further to help those who went to school and then graduated into an economy that was struggling.
"What I've seen from research is that it's reducing student loan debt, but it's really focusing on families," Hill said. "And it will lift people up who have grown up in poverty, or people of color, who disproportionately have higher student loan debt."
Danimus, too, said the conditions that created the problem went further than reducing or eliminating debt, but that she'd vote to help ease it in whatever way she could. Her plan includes eliminating student loan interest, restoring credit scores, giving those who've paid back their existing loans a tax deduction and giving those with existing loans an across-the-board credit.
Clynch and McMorris Rodgers were closer together on issues concerning guns.
"I'm not in favor of any additional federal legislation," Clynch said.
The congresswoman earlier this month voted down, along with her Republican colleagues in Washington, several measures pushed by Democrats in the wake of the mass shootings at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York, and an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas. That included allowing federal judges to issue protection orders barring someone from buying or possessing a firearm based on a petition by family or law enforcement, increasing the age to buy semiautomatic weapons and prohibiting the sale of certain large-capacity magazines.
McMorris Rodgers also voted against a measure last year that would have strengthened the background check process by requiring private parties who wanted to exchange guns to seek a background check from a licensed gun dealer before the transaction.
The congresswoman said she had concerns with that bill "around due process to law-abiding gun owners."
Both Democrats in the race, running in a district that has been held by the GOP since passage of a federal assault weapons ban in 1994, said they would support the background check measure, in addition to other potential restrictions.
"We know criminals aren't going to do that," Danimus said. "If I was a police officer, looking for a criminal, the process of elimination becomes really easy."
"What I know, and what Cathy McMorris Rodgers may be unaware of, is that none of our rights are unfettered or absolute," Hill said. "They have to be balanced with the health, safety and welfare of our communities."
Hill and Danimus also strongly supported continued access to abortion services, in the wake of a leaked draft decision from the U.S. Supreme Court indicating the panel's conservative judges might seek to overturn the longstanding Roe v. Wade decision. That ruling, if it makes it into the official court decision expected soon, likely would return the issue to the states.
While Washington already guarantees the right to receive an abortion up until a fetus is viable, except to protect the life and health of the mother, both Democrats in the race said there should be a federal law modeled after Washington's.
"Abortion is health care," Hill said. "Hands down, it's a right of privacy that is constitutionally protected."
"I believe in individual choice, within the boundaries of viability," Danimus said.
McMorris Rodgers said she didn't believe the Roe decision had settled the legality of abortion access, and that "states are best positioned to make their own laws."
She said she was concerned about measures in Congress and in Olympia that would allow abortions to be performed past the point of viability and supersede other states' laws on the subject.
"I believe life begins at conception," the congresswoman said. "And therefore the civil rights of a person also begin at that moment."
McMorris Rodgers said she would support exceptions to protect the life of a mother, but not in cases of rape or incest, which was a change from when The Spokesman-Review asked that question during the 2018 Congressional contest. In 2017, McMorris Rodgers voted for legislation that bans abortions after 20 weeks that included exceptions to preserve the life of the mother and in cases of rape or incest, with some qualifications.
The congresswoman further clarified that though she'd supported such exceptions in the past, "her individual belief is that there should not be any exceptions."
Clynch, too, said states were best situated and should provide guidance on the issue. He said Washington's laws were "too liberal," though he did support exceptions for protecting a mother's life, as well as for instances of rape or incest.
Spokane County ballots will be mailed to voters in mid-July. The election is Aug. 2.
McMorris Rodgers, as the incumbent, has a massive fundraising advantage over her two Democratic challengers. As of March 31, the most recent deadline for filing with the Federal Election Commission, the McMorris Rodgers campaign had raised $3.6 million during the election cycle, compared to the $110,000 raised by Danimus and $77,000 raised by Hill.
Clynch had not filed fundraising paperwork with the FEC as of March 31. Candidates who have neither raised nor spent $5,000 do not have to file paperwork with the government.
McMorris Rodgers has received $5,800, the maximum amount an individual can give for both the primary and general elections, by donors representing such firms as Microsoft, Amazon and several health and manufacturing firms.
She also received a $5,800 contribution from Jim Cowles, chairman of Inland Empire Paper Co., a subsidiary of the Cowles Co. that also publishes The Spokesman-Review.
The congresswoman also has received significant donations from the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, as well as political action committees representing Boeing, the Ford Motor Co., Pfizer, the Fox Corp. and several telecommunications companies, including AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon.
Danimus made a pledge not to accept any corporate money to support her campaign. She has put roughly $25,000 into her own campaign in the form of contributions and loans. Another $35,680 comes from individual donors in Washington state.
Hill received $2,000 from Brown's campaign committee, formed ahead of Brown's 2018 contest against McMorris Rodgers. The former state senator and current head of the Washington Department of Commerce has endorsed Hill.
She's also received donations from Spokane City Councilwoman Betsy Wilkerson, Spokane Public Schools Board of Directors Vice President Nikki Lockwood and Ormsby.