But the modest pomp of a longstanding and often rote democratic tradition – a campaign debate before the public – couldn’t disguise the bare-knuckled brawl between two relatively young and unorthodox candidates over the future of America.
For the race to succeed U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler – a moderate Republican who was edged out in the August top-two primary after voting to impeach former President Donald Trump – is a race about many things.
It’s a debate about how to use government power, how to tackle soaring inflation, and the rollback of federal abortion protections by a conservative U.S. Supreme Court. It’s about increased crime and drug abuse, American manufacturing and the country’s broader role in the world. It’s about the continuing efforts to delegitimize the presidential election of 2020.
This race is also a contest over who should be allowed into this country to live and work, and who gets to be called an American.
Kent, an outspoken America First candidate endorsed by Trump, has been dogged by media reports of affiliations or interactions with various groups of right-wing street brawlers and other extremist elements. He knows the issue will be raised.
So when Gluesenkamp Perez brings it up in the debate – “Joe Kent wants to ban all immigration for 20 years to reestablish a white majority” – he is prepared.
“This nonsense about me being a white nationalist is absolutely despicable,” Kent, who deployed in 11 combat tours, said at the debate. “I fought for this country for over 20 years, I placed my life in the hands of minorities and people of every single race and creed and sexuality, and they’ve placed their lives in my hands.”
The 42-year-old Kent also isn’t apologetic for who he is: a former soldier and intelligence worker whose experience overseas and the death of his wife in the line of duty led to a deep disenchantment with and suspicion of the federal government, which led to a streak of isolationism.
Kent’s aspirations are blunt: boost oil and gas production, defund the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Education, impose tariffs in an attempt to bring back manufacturing jobs, use the death penalty on drug dealers.
And he would send the American military south, Kent said, to secure the border with Mexico and stop drug trafficking.
“Look, I want to limit immigration into this country, cut off illegal immigration, and if a job has a visa tied to it that takes away a job from an American citizen,” Kent said during the debate, “I want to get rid of that."
A stark choice
For two decades, voters in southwest Washington’s 3rd Congressional District have elected moderate representatives. From 1999 through 2011 it was Brian Baird, a moderate Democrat who has endorsed Gluesenkamp Perez. And since 2011, it was Herrera Beutler.
The district sweeps across Washington’s southwest, capturing all of Clark, Wahkiakum, Skamania, Pacific, Lewis and Cowlitz counties as well as a bite of Thurston County. It’s a mix of old and new Washington: paper and timber mills, shellfish and shipping ports. It’s home to Vancouver, pop. 197,000 and the fourth biggest city in the state, as well as booming bedroom communities for both it and Portland, which sits just across the river.
Now, voters will choose between Kent and Gluesenkamp Perez, the 34-year-old daughter of a Mexican immigrant who lives with her husband in a rural Skamania County home they built themselves. They co-own an auto shop in Portland. She owns guns and caucused for Bernie Sanders, whom she described as an alternative to a Clinton dynasty, and touts herself as a pragmatist small business owner who wants to protect abortion rights.
It was the Joe Kent signs popping up all over Skamania County that led Gluesenkamp Perez to run, and the rollback of abortion protections has only increased her determination.
"People who should have had Jaime's signs up in Skamania County, didn't,” she said one day in a phone interview from her auto shop. “I looked at Joe Kent and thought, ‘Here's a guy with nice hair and bad ideas.’”
Democrats worked hard in recent years to unseat Herrera Beutler, especially during 2018’s blue wave — and still lost. Their challenges remain. As of mid-July, Kent had raised nine times as much money as Gluesenkamp Perez. He has a six-figure Twitter following and is a frequent presence on Fox News.
Nonetheless, Democrats are hoping they can break through. Earlier this month, the Gluesenkamp Perez campaign released an internal poll conducted in late August showing a tight race.
Speaking at a rally in a Vancouver brewery earlier this month, both Attorney General Bob Ferguson and Gluesenkamp Perez pointed to Kent’s affiliations with Trump and the Proud Boys – members of whom have been charged with felonies in connection with the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol – and to what she described as “Trump’s march toward fascism.”
"Joe Kent is picking up that same banner of fascism,” Gluesenkamp Perez said. “And he has got to be stopped before it is too late.”
On a mission from Trump
A week before their debate, Kent bounded into the room of the Cowlitz County Republican Party office in Kelso, where about 60 people had settled into folding chairs to hear what he had to say. After a quick and jovial salute to the crowd, Kent plunged into his detailed vision of Republican victory.
If he gets his way, Kent would shut down the government if President Joe Biden doesn’t start boosting domestic energy production immediately. Kent would use congressional authority to investigate Anthony Fauci over COVID-19, as well as Trump’s loss in the 2020 election, which Kent and others continue to question. He’d impeach Attorney General Merrick Garland and U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.
And in his biggest applause line of the night, Kent vowed on his first day in office to sign articles of impeachment against Biden – for, among other things, failing to secure America’s southern border.
Kent acknowledged that even a Republican-controlled House doesn’t guarantee an impeachment. But he emphasized it as a powerful tactical tool to grind Biden’s agenda to a halt. “This country can't live through two more years of Biden with his pedal to the metal,” Kent said, adding later: “We're not going to win arguments with these guys. The only thing they respect is power.”
He paints conservatives as persecuted by far-left progressives and Biden, pointing to the president’s speech where he declared supporters of Trump a threat to the foundations of the republic. "The Democrats know they have nothing to run on whatsoever, they can't talk economy, they can't talk crime, so all they're going to do is turn around and attack us personally," said Kent. "They're going to say, 'You're racist, you're sexist,' all the things that conservatives get called on a daily basis."
In an interview after the town hall, Kent – who grew up in Portland and now lives in Yacolt, a small town in Clark County – credited his multiple deployments overseas with leading him to sharply question the workings and motivations of the federal government. After his military career, Kent worked for the Central Intelligence Agency.
Kent said he began to question the government almost immediately after shipping out to Iraq in 2003. "I was a young sergeant, and I was like 'OK, we're over here to take out terrorists, these guys are linked to 9/11, they might get WMDs," Kent said, referring to weapons of mass destruction. "I believed it."
But on the ground, Kent said he quickly came to believe the government had lied and that command staff wasn't working to correct mistakes. Meanwhile, the United States government continued to pour troops and resources into the occupation.
The disillusionment turned him against the Bush administration, Kent said, and led him to an interest in Ron Paul, and ultimately to Trump. The father of current U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Kentucky, Ron Paul was a longtime Republican congressman from Texas and three-time presidential aspirant who was known for his criticisms of America’s interventions around the globe.
"I became a Trump Republican when Trump took apart the Republican national security establishment during the primary," Kent said. "When he went after the Bushes and he went after the Cheneys, I was like, 'Well that's my guy.'"
Then, his wife Shannon, a U.S. Navy cryptologist, was killed in Syria in 2019 while fighting ISIS.
"Had my wife not gotten killed, I wouldn't be here, I'd probably be overseas somewhere," Kent said, adding later: "I thought I could influence it best from the inside. Be the guy, when it was my turn, to say ‘No, there are no weapons of mass destruction here, these guys are full of it.’"
On the fringes
Kent’s journey across the conservative political spectrum – a range of jostling philosophies and differing approaches to power and politics – has also bumped against more radical elements.
A report last week in Rolling Stone detailed Kent’s boost in followers on Gab, a social media platform known for extremist speech whose owner has been described by the Anti-Defamation League as spreading anti-Semitic messages there.
He has appeared in photos or at rallies with Joey Gibson and Chandler Pappas of the group Patriot Prayer, according to news reports, and Tusitala “Tiny” Toese, a member of the Proud Boys, groups that have engaged in street brawls and demonstrations in Portland and Olympia. Pappas earlier this year was sentenced to 13 months in prison for spraying mace at a police officer during a December 2020 riot at the Oregon State Capitol. Last September Toese was shot in the foot by a counter-demonstrator in Olympia – the third of a trio political shootings in Washington’s capital since the 2020 election.
In July, a Multnomah County judge acquitted Gibson, who leads Patriot Prayer, and an associate on charges of criminal riot after a fight between political factions in 2019 outside a Portland bar, according to The Oregonian.
Kent also participated in a phone call with Nick Fuentes, a white nationalist who participated in the 2017 “Unite the Right Rally” in Charlottesville, according to Oregon Public Broadcasting, but distanced himself afterward and disavowed Fuentes. A few Fuentes supporters later appeared at a Kent town hall to show their displeasure with the candidate, according to a report in Centralia’s newspaper The Chronicle.
Those affiliations are troubling for a candidate for U.S. Congress, said Stephen Piggott of the Western States Center, an organization that tracks extremism in the Pacific Northwest. “Right now in the U.S., there is a concerted effort by white nationalist and anti-democracy groups to make inroads with elected officials,” said Piggott. “And what's concerning is when elected officials, or those aspiring to be, lend credibility to these organizations, to these individuals, and give them credibility by either meeting with them, or also espousing similar beliefs to them.”
Asked about Patriot Prayer and the Proud Boys, Kent pointed out Gibson's acquittal in the bar fight, saying, "I think Joey's a great guy, he has a very Christian, peaceful message. Nothing against Joey Gibson and Patriot Prayer."
As for the Proud Boys, "What is a Proud Boy? Who is a Proud Boy?" Kent said. "If they act violently, I don't want anything to do with him. I think it's wrong and despicable."
The day of the Capitol insurrection, Kent tweeted against the mob that broke in and interrupted the certification of the election, calling it “dangerous & foolish.” A day later, Kent went further, calling the actions of rioters “criminal.” But Kent has also decried the arrest and confinement of so many of those involved, and said he would support their pardons by a future Republican president.
The Washington State Republican Party stands behind Kent, according to communications director Ben Gonzalez. In an email, Gonzalez pointed to Kent’s win and the state party’s nomination for endorsement in an August party meeting and accused Gluesenkamp Perez’s business of helping protesters during the 2020 protests in Portland.
“The citizens of the 3rd Congressional District recognize that only one candidate is supporting and endorsed by local law enforcement, and is fighting to keep costs down for working people, and that candidate is Joe Kent,” Gonzalez wrote.
Looking at the world
Gluesenkamp Perez grew up in Texas and moved to the Northwest when she was 18, she said, and got a economics degree from Reed College. She’d been active in high school political groups, attending both meetings for both Democrats and Republicans. “And it wasn't until my brother came out as gay that I realized that Republicans weren't for me,” she said.
A bike mechanic in her college years, Gluesenkamp Perez said she met her husband who “at the time was working as a mobile mechanic, fixing cars in the streets from a Vanagon.” Their shop in Portland now has eight employees, and she called it “a look at the whole world.”
“You've got teenagers breaking their transmissions doing burnouts and lying about it to you, and old people who can't pay rent and starting to live in their vans,” she said. “It is a microcosm of all of America.”
After the family moved to Skamania County – they lived in an old school bus on the property, she said, as they built their house – Gluesenkamp Perez ran unsuccessfully in 2016 for county commissioner. That same year she caucused in support of Sanders, the socialist from Vermont who challenged Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Gluesenkamp Perez described herself as not overly partisan, and said she supported Sanders partly because if Clinton were nominated and won, “It would have been basically my entire life under two dynasties, the Clintons and the Bushes.”
Like Kent, Gluesenkamp Perez is suspicious of the past few decades of globalism and also wants to focus on boosting American manufacturing. But the Supreme Court decision overturning abortion protections has become another priority for her in the race against Kent, who is anti-abortion.
“We have got to ensure a woman's right to her own medical decisions,” Gluesenkamp Perez said. “It is a slap in the face to women everywhere.”
Muted support for Trump
In 2020, the 3rd Congressional District’s enthusiasm for Trump was muted. Herrera Beutler beat her Democratic challenger by 13 percentage points, while Trump prevailed over Biden in the district by about 4 percentage points.
Each candidate has their own unique challenge to secure a win, said David Wasserman, House editor for the Cook Political Report, which conducts nonpartisan election analysis.
Kent must consolidate his support among Republican primary rivals after a bitter primary, said Wasserman. In his town hall, Kent made sure to speak graciously of Herrera Beutler’s concession and swift endorsement from another Republican rival in the race, Heidi St. John.
Perhaps the biggest question is about the 22% of primary voters who stuck with Herrera Beutler. “Gluesenkamp Perez would have to win about two-thirds of Herrera Beutler's voters to win the election,” said Wasserman. “A tall order, but considering Herrera Beutler got her support from a cross-section of Democrats, independents and Republicans, it's not totally out of the question.”
But the race hasn’t received much national attention by Democrats or their donors. Nationally, "Democrats are donating to lost-cause races, against Marjorie Taylor Greene," said Wasserman. "When Joe Kent is every bit as America First."
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee did not respond to requests for comment.
David Nierenberg, a longtime fundraiser for Herrera Beutler, believes Gluesenkamp Perez can prevail. He previously served as a national campaign finance chair for Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican candidate for president and current Republican senator from Utah, who voted to impeach Trump in both trials. Nierenberg is now helping fundraise for Gluesenkamp Perez – and says he’s already brought a six-figure sum to the candidate he described as "very similar in my opinion to Brian Baird.”
"She is not an AOC, she is not a Bernie Sanders, she is not an Elizabeth Warren,” Nierenberg said earlier this month in an interview. Independents and moderate Republicans “can support a candidate like this,” he said, “who lives in a rural community, knows how to use a gun, operates her own small business with her husband.”
Nierenberg decried Kent’s associations with others on the far right, such as Steve Bannon and U.S. Rep. Paul Gosar, a Republican from Arizona. He noted Kent’s opposition to helping Ukraine fend off Russia’s invasion, which has included civilian executions, rape and the deportations of at least 900,000 Ukrainian citizens, according to news reports, a tactic reminiscent of Stalin's Soviet Union. And he called out Kent's support of Trump’s unfounded claims of election fraud.
“These are radically extreme positions that threaten our democracy, and our communities' civility and cohesion,” Nierenberg said. “I personally find them offensive because my grandfathers came through Ellis Island.”