WASHINGTON (AP) — A congressional candidate whose compelling personal story of military valor and unfathomable loss helped him win former President Donald Trump's support has connections to right-wing extremists, including a campaign consultant who was a member of the Proud Boys.
Republican Joe Kent, who is challenging U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler of Washington state in the Aug. 2 primary, has also courted prominent white nationalists and posed recently for a photograph with a media personality who has previously described Adolf Hitler as a “complicated historical figure” who “many people misunderstand.”
An Associated Press review of internet postings, court records and campaign finance disclosures depict a candidate with a more complicated biography than the compelling personal story that turned the 42-year-old Kent into a favorite of conservative media.
Square-jawed with wavy black hair and sleeve tattoos, the former Green Beret served 11 combat deployments before retiring from Special Forces to join the CIA. He also endured unspeakable tragedy: His wife, Shannon, a Navy cryptologist, was killed by a suicide bomber in 2019 while fighting the Islamic State group in Syria, leaving him to raise their two young sons alone.
But taken broadly, Kent's recent relationships and activities reinforce concerns about the GOP's ties to extremist groups. The House committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol has drawn attention to the role such organizations, particularly the Proud Boys, played in the effort to disrupt the peaceful transfer of power after Trump's reelection loss in 2020.
“There’s a through line,” said Dave Neiwert, an author and journalist who has covered right-wing extremism in the Pacific Northwest for decades. “Many (Republican) politicians play footsie with it. Kent is just unabashed.”
Kent's campaign declined to make him available for an interview.
“Joe Kent’s platform of inclusive populism rejects racism and bigotry and invites all Americans to support his aggressive America First agenda of rebuilding our industries, ending illegal immigration, and stopping stupid military interventions that don’t directly support our national interest,” Matt Braynard, a Kent strategist, said in a statement.
Ahead of the final slate of primaries that unfold in August, Kent is not the only House candidate worrying some Republicans who fear an otherwise favorable political climate to regain control of the House could be threatened by candidates seen as too extreme.
In Michigan, John Gibbs, a former Trump administration official challenging Republican Rep. Peter Meijer, once spread false claims that Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign chairman participated in a satanic ritual that involved bodily fluids.
In New York, Carl Paladino, a former GOP candidate for governor now running for the House, praised Hitler last year as “the kind of leader we need today" and once emailed racist comments about Michelle Obama to a Buffalo newspaper for publication. And former Trump administration official Max Miller, the Republican nominee for an Ohio congressional seat, was accused of physical abuse by his ex-girlfriend, Trump White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham. Miller denies the allegations and has sued Grisham for defamation.
A representative for the National Republican Congressional Committee, the organization responsible for helping the GOP regain control of the House, declined to comment, citing a policy of not interfering in primaries. A Trump spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.
Of those soon facing elections, Kent stands out for the breadth of his ties to a deep-seated extremist fringe that has long existed in the Pacific Northwest but is often obscured by the region's overwhelming liberal politics.
Campaign finance disclosures reveal Kent recently paid $11,375 for “consulting” over the past four months to Graham Jorgensen, who was identified as a Proud Boy in a law enforcement report and was charged with cyber stalking his ex-girlfriend in 2018. The charges were dismissed in late 2019. But a judge in Vancouver, Washington, issued an order of protection requiring Jorgensen to stay away from her, records show.
Kent's campaign said Jorgensen was a low-level worker who hands out literature and puts up signs and denied he has any current affiliation with “outside organizations.” They declined to make Jorgensen available for an interview.
Kent is also a close political ally of Joey Gibson, the founder of the Christian nationalist group Patriot Prayer. Since establishing the group in 2016, Gibson has organized demonstrations in Portland, as well as the city’s Washington state suburbs, where he and his followers have clashed with left-wing groups. Many of the demonstrations were coordinated with the Proud Boys.
The often violent rallies organized by Gibson drew anti-government activists, extremists as well as white supremacists to unite in common cause — namely fighting left-wing activists.
Photos from the events archived online by the group Rose City Antifa demonstrate how in some cases Kent's allies have associated with people who have expressed white supremacist views. In numerous instances, Gibson as well as Jorgensen, the Proud Boy on Kent’s payroll, were recorded standing next to Jacob Von Ott, who has posted racist and antisemitic views online and expressed admiration for the founder of the American Nazi Party.
Von Ott did not respond to a request for comment sent to an email address listed to him, but he has previously denied that he's a white supremacist.
“The danger with these groups is it can be an initial foray into this extremist space. And once you’re in this extremist space, you can become further radicalized,” said Emily Kaufman, an Anti-Defamation League researcher who tracks extremist activity in the Pacific Northwest.
Gibson regularly promotes Kent’s campaign on social media and spoke at a Kent fundraiser last year. When it was Kent’s turn to speak at the event, he lavished Gibson with praise, explaining that Gibson “defended this community when our community was under assault from antifa.”
Gibson was acquitted last week on felony riot charges after an altercation with left-wing activists at a Portland bar
Kent's ties to extremism aren't limited to the Pacific Northwest.
Braynard, one of Kent's top advisers, was the architect of a Washington, D.C., rally last year that sought to build sympathy for those arrested during the insurrection by rebranding them as “political prisoners.” Kent spoke at the rally, which was poorly attended.
And his candidacy is endorsed by far-right Arizona state lawmaker Wendy Rogers, who has identified herself as a member of the Oath Keepers, a far-right militia group that played an outsize role in the storming of the U.S. Capitol. Kent publicly thanked Rogers for her endorsement and has raised doubts about the circumstances that led to the arrest of Oath Keepers over their role in the attack.
Kent has also sought support from figures associated with the white nationalist “Groyper Army” movement led by Nick Fuentes, an internet personality who has promoted white supremacist beliefs and attended the 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, as well as the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol.
Kent has acknowledged that a political consultant set up a call early in his campaign that Fuentes was part of, where expanding his campaign's reach on social media was discussed. But he denied that there was any sort of formal arrangement and distanced himself from Fuentes in March after their affiliation became broadly known. Kent tweeted at the time that he did not want “want Fuentes’s endorsement due his focus on race/religion.”
After the rebuke, however, Kent appeared on a far-right YouTube channel where he echoed sentiments similar to those held by many white nationalists.
“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with there being a white people special interest group,” Kent said during the YouTube interview with a group called the American Populist Union. He also said the immigration situation between the U.S. and Mexico wasn't as bad as in Europe because “their version of Mexico is Africa and the Middle East.”
In April, Kent was photographed at a fundraiser giving a thumbs-up with Greyson Arnold, a Groyper-aligned commentator who identifies as a “Christian American Nationalist." Like Fuentes, Arnold was also at the U.S. Capitol during the insurrection.
Arnold has shared memes online that refer to Nazis as a “pure race" and has called Hitler a “complicated" and “misunderstood” historical figure. He also hosted a “White Boy Summer” celebration in Lake Havasu, Arizona, in June 2021, drawing the event’s title from a popular meme that was circulating among white nationalists and racist groups.
Arnold did not respond to an email seeking comment.
Braynard, the Kent strategist, said the candidate does not know Arnold and the campaign “does not do background checks on the thousands of people who’ve asked to take selfies with Joe.”
Tom Davis, a former Virginia congressman who led House Republicans' campaign arm during George W. Bush's first term, said GOP leadership in Washington, D.C., faces a difficult set of choices when deciding what to do about candidates like Kent.
“You don’t want to go too heavy on this guy because if he’s nominated you want to hold the seat," said Davis. “The problem for Republicans is you can probably get away with this in 50 districts in the country. But this does not strike me as the kind of district where you don’t pay a price.”
Associated Press writer Eric Tucker contributed to this report.