Democrats last won Washington’s most conservative seat three decades ago, writes Andrew Buncombe in Yakima, but this year they see an opening
Doug White looks at his phone as he makes call after call.
Seated at a long table in a room in the centre of Yakima, its windows covered with campaign posters, he has no need to rehearse what he says. And he does not need a script; he has made so many of these calls, the words simply flow out.
“This is Doug White,” he says, when his call goes to an answering machine.
“I’m the Democrat challenging Dan Newhouse for Congress. I’m number one in the polls. The Democrats are coming out out in full force and I hope you are too. Vote for me in the primary so I can get through to the general. Once again, this is Doug White.”
White, 60, is going to need the support of every single person he can think of to call – and then probably more as well. Washington’s Fourth Congressional District is the most conservative in the state. The last time a Democrat held it was 1992, when Bill Clinton won the White House, against a Republican rival, George HW Bush, whose numbers had been diluted by the presence in the race of a vigorous independent, Ross Perot.
With Joe Biden’s approval rating at record lows and against a backdrop of soaring inflation, most experts believe Democrats will face a tough time in this year’s midterms.
But there are a handful of usually solid red seats where they believe the actions of Donald Trump, bent on revenge against those he he deems “traitors”, have provided a glimmer of opportunity. Washington’s Fourth District is one of them.
Newhouse, 67, who has held the seat since 2015, voted in line with Trump’s agenda 90 per cent of the time, according to records.
When Trump lost his bid for reelection, Newhouse also supported his claims of election wrongdoing, and signed a letter of support to a legal bid seeking to throw out the results of Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
Yet, in Trump’s eyes, he committed an unforgivable sin, when after the Jan 6 riots at the US Capitol, Newhouse was among just 10 Republicans in the House who voted to impeach the president for a second time. He also voted to create a committee to investigate what had happened that day and the events preceeding it.
Trump promptly vowed to support challengers against the 10 Republicans, one of whom was Liz Cheney. The representative from Washington’s Third Congressional District, Jaime Herrera Beutler, also voted for impeachment.
While several Trump-backed challengers in races across the country have won their primaries, the nature of Washington’s voting system may actually backfire on the former president. In the so-called “jungle primary’ to be held on 2 August, the top two candidates go through to the general election, irrespective of party.
White’s hope is that with Republicans split after Trump endorsed the MAGA-imbued Loren Culp, the chances of both Culp and himself of making it through the primary are greater. His hope is that if it is a showdown between himself and the hardline Culp, he may secure the support of Republicans who fear the former police chief is simply too extreme.
“I’ve got the strongest campaign that’s been run this district in 30 years. Number one in the polls, I raise more money than my Republican challengers. I think we’re going to win, and the numbers back me up,” White tells The Independent.
“There are more registered Democrats in congressional district four than there are registered Republicans. And even though I am a Democrat, my concern is the people in this district. I’m a fourth generation farming family….and I see that we have been neglected and abandoned for probably about 30 years. We went from being a very prosperous and forward moving district, to one that now embraces minimum wage jobs and community violence.”
One of the challenges of assessing White’s claims, and those of the other seven candidates, all of Republican, is that there have been no public polls released. White says he was told he was running first in a private poll conducted by one of the Republicans. Meanwhile, the political analysis website FiveThirtyEight gives Newhouse a 98 per cent chance of being reelected and 2 per cent to Culp.
In terms of money raised to date, federal records show Newhouse having raised the most, with $1.6m, followed by Republican Jerrold Sessler on $500,000, White on $390,000 and Loren Culp with $310,000.
White grew up in the Yakima Valley, of the nation’s top fruit-growing areas and which bills itself as the Palm Springs of Washington, a reference to the Californian desert resort made famous by the likes of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin.
After completing university, White worked abroad for 20 years as a digital consultant in places such as Saudi Arabia and Hong Kong.
He says while he has no experience in elected office, he believes his skills as a manager can be used to the benefit of the district, which also has a large Latino population, whose support he hopes to atract.
“My whole career has been about finding solutions to really big problems and working with people with very different backgrounds and very different agendas, and making sure we all ended up on the same page,” he says.
What has been the impact of Trump’s determination to oust Newhouse?
“Significant. We see that Dan Newhouse has not had – to the best of my knowledge – any Republican endorsements,” says White.
“The Washington Republicans do not endorse him. The Benton County Republicans do not endorse him….So the only thing that we know about the Republicans, is they will endorse anybody but Dan Newhouse.”
Newhouse did not respond to repeated enquiries from The Independent.
His website shows he has been endorsed by numerous groups including the Washington Council of Police and Sheriffs, Susan B Anthony Pro-Life America, Human Life PAC of Washington State and the National Federation of Independent Business. He also has the support of a number of state level legislators.
“Dan is a leading conservative voice for Central Washington and our rural communities. Dan has consistently received ‘A’ ratings from the National Rifle Association and Susan B Anthony List, a leading pro-life organisation,” his website says.
There are certainly some Democrats in the Fourth District, but are there enough and are they going to come out for White in an off-year election?
When Inslee bagged the seat in 1992, he squeaked out a 51-49 win against a Republican who easily beat him when he sought reelection two years later. In 2020, Newhouse thumped Democrat Douglas McKinley 66-34. Trump beat Biden in the district by 58-39.
White claims his campaign has done more outreach, than in any previous year.
In the hot, high desert community of Moses Lake, one of a handful of rural towns found in the district, 180 miles east of Washington, many voters said they would be supporting Culp. But some said White would be getting their vote.
“I am hoping for some change. Newhouse has had a long career,” says Armando Viela, 61, who works for the city’s transportation company, as he rushed to reach the air-conditioning of his vehicle, after stopping in at the post office.
“I am voting for White. There are a number of factors, but we have to get the crime down.”
He also says the nation needs to address the climate crisis, and he says he supports a woman right to choose whether or not to have an abortion, an issue many Democratic candidates hope will drive out the vote.
On a day the temperature hit 110F and few people seemed overly eager to share their opinions, there is also some support for White in Yakima, the city where he grew up and the largest in the district.
A 25-year-old medical student who asks to identified by the initials ZL says he has voted for Democrats in each race being contested.
Meanwhile, a man called Elvis Tangi-Arrey, who had worked for the Food and Drug Administration, but is currently unemployed, says he also voted for White.
He says the recent hearings about the events of Jan 6 had been a reminder of the threat to democracy that unfolded that day, he says.
“I am voting Democrat. They will work to help people,” he says. “I was born outside the US and people look to the US for leadership. We need to protect democracy, not jut for the US but for other countries.”
For all of White’s confidence, some believe he has no chance of winning. “The Fourth Congressional District is very conservative,” Culp tells The Independent, dismissing a suggestion that the Democrat could emerge the winner.
Culp, who says he is going to win the race, does however think White could get through the primary.
“Our polls show Mr White is very close to Newhouse, who is six to eight points behind me. So there’s a very good possibility he going to primaried,” he says.
If White pulls off an against all odds victory, what change does he think he could make in the fourth?
“It would mean a very different future for congressional district four,” says White.
“It would mean a district that had access to health care, it would be a district in which we were going to grow the economy, so we can attract industries that have family wage jobs rather than minimum wage job. It would be about diversifying the tax base. So we just start tending to our communities, the violence, the domestic violence, the drug overdoses, the housing crisis that we face.”
He adds: “The difference would be taking care of the people here. I believe that’s what the representative’s job is about.”