VANCOUVER, WA--If you ask Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Jaime Herrera shouldn’t exist. She’s a conservative, Hispanic woman who is the Republican nominee for Congress in Washington state’s 3rd congressional district. In August, Reid told a Latino audience that he didn’t know “how anyone of Hispanic heritage could be a Republican.” When Herrera, 31, first heard Reid’s remarks, she was momentarily dumbfounded. “It was a sense of disbelief at first,” she tells me at her campaign headquarters in Vancouver, Wash.—just north of Portland, Oregon. “But then I realized that this man, who is the face of the Democratic Party, does not understand the American people. Most Americans believe in individual responsibility, liberty, personal ownership, and basic fairness. Those are American, and fairly conservative, values that appeal to all sorts of people, regardless of background.”
Herrera’s journey to becoming her party’s nominee in a highly contested Congressional election has been rather circuitous. She grew up in her district and graduated from the University of Washington in 2004 after working her way through school. After a stint as a White House intern, Herrera joined the Capitol Hill staff of Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a Republican Congresswoman from Eastern Washington, whom Herrera considers a mentor. After moving back west, where she’s served in the Washington state legislature for three years, Herrera says she harbored neither the intention nor the desire to return to Washington, DC. But all of what was about to change.
The seminal moment came last summer at the height of the national healthcare debate. Congressman Brian Baird, the Democrat who currently represents WA-03, put his foot in his mouth by likening anti-Obamacare protesters to Nazis. “What we’re seeing right now is close to Brown Shirt tactics. I mean that very seriously,” he said on August 5, 2009. A few days later, Herrera found herself inundated with requests that she challenge Baird, some of which came in an usual setting—her own wedding. “Some of our friends were asking me to run at our wedding reception. I’d been married for about two hours at that point,” she recalls. “My husband stepped in and said, ‘we’re not talking about this until after our honeymoon,’ which delayed our discussions for a little while.”
In early December, Baird announced he wouldn’t seek re-election, which proved to be the final tipping point. “[His decision] intensified things. My phone pretty much exploded with calls from people saying ‘we need you to do this,’” Herrera says. “My husband and I determined that we’d either go for it, or we’d look back in 10 or 20 years and have to tell our children we were too comfortable and didn’t want to take the risk when we could have made a difference.” After fielding an unsolicited supportive phone call from Rodgers, Herrera decided to jump into the race. “We made the decision, it was the right decision, and we haven’t looked back since,” she says.
Herrera won a three-way Republican primary in August, earning more than twice the number of votes as her nearest GOP competitor. Equally important was the partisan breakdown of all votes cast in the district’s primary election. “Our primary was the best poll for the general,” she explains. “In Washington, it’s a top-two primary, where the two highest vote-getters advance, regardless of party. In August, the overall percentage of people choosing a Republican was 54 percent. The Democrats combined for 43 percent. That’s huge.” Recent independent polling indicates Herrera has maintained, and built upon, that lead: She now holds a 9-to-13 point advantage, which has prompted a number of political prognosticators to flip the race to “lean Republican.”
Washington’s 3rd Congressional District is known for its independence. It’s a quintessential purple district, and whether it adopts a reddish or bluish tint often serves as a political barometer for the country. It voted for Republican Dino Rossi in his 2004 and 2008 gubernatorial campaigns, while backing Congressman Baird, the Democrat, in both cycles. Bush carried the district in 2004, but Barack Obama won it back four years later. “People sometimes write off Washington as a blue state,” Herrera says, “But the folks in southwest Washington self-identify as independents. We want representatives who favor limited government.” Herrera’s opponent in the race is former state legislator Denny Heck. Heck is a doctrinaire liberal, who supports Obamacare, the stimulus, and the bailouts—yet he’s trying to elude the scarlet ‘D’ in 2010. “My opponent doesn’t put the word ‘Democrat’ on his signs, his mailings, or his website. It’s like his party affiliation doesn’t exist,” Herrera says, wryly.
National Democrats, sensing the race slipping away, have parachuted into WA-03, deploying Vice President Biden to the district and mailing out flyers attacking Herrera’s pro-life stance. The DCCC is also running one of the silliest and most frivolous attack ads ever conceived against Herrera, complaining about the number of business cards she ordered as a State Representative. Really. Unsurprisingly, she isn’t overly concerned by the petty potshots. “People can attack me for all sorts of reasons, but we’re going to focus on is what the independent voters of southwest Washington care about, which is job creation,” she says.
Unemployment is an especially potent issue in Clark County, where the jobless rate stands at 13.9 percent. Clark County voters make up more than half of the district’s electorate. “My opponent votes for higher taxes that kill jobs. I don’t. My opponent supports Obamacare, which will also kill jobs. I don’t. I think there are better solutions to our country’s healthcare problems than what we’ve seen in that bill, which is actually driving up costs.”
When I spoke with Dino Rossi about his Senate campaign on Monday morning, he mentioned a joint rally his campaign held with Herrera in the 3rd district last week. Citing the large and enthusiastic turnout, Rossi definitively predicted Herrera would win. Although she appreciates the vote of confidence from the man who will top the Republican ticket in Washington this fall, Herrera refuses to take the race for granted—even in the face of favorable poll results and a crucial newspaper endorsement. “I want my entire team to know that our success depends on how hard we’re willing to work for the next three weeks,” she says. “We need to execute. Our message is right, and I can back up that message with my record in Olympia,” she says. “This is a clear compare and contrast election. People often tell me that they don’t need government bailouts. They need government to get out of their way, and let them do what they do best. We value responsive representatives, and we want the government to let us save and spend our own money and make choices for our own lives. That’s what this election is all about.”