Spokane-area 5th District race wide open with McMorris Rodgers out

After the 20-year incumbent declined to run, 11 candidates are now battling to represent Eastern WA in the historically powerful U.S. House seat.

5th Congressional District candidate photos

Candidates for Washington’s 5th Congressional District including Republicans (top row from left) Michael Baumgartner, Jonathan Bingle, Brian Dansel, Rene’ Holaday and Jacquelin Maycumber, and Democrats (bottom row from left) Bernadine Bank, Carmela Conroy, Ann Marie Danimus and Matthew Welde. These nine candidates participated in a recent debate. (Courtesy of the candidates)

Eleven candidates are battling for the Spokane region’s seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, a position from which previous lawmakers have enjoyed political power and longevity.

Democrat Tom Foley held the 5th District seat for 30 years and rose to become speaker of the House, no. 3 in line for the presidency.

In 1994, Foley became the first speaker to lose reelection since the Civil War when Spokane lawyer George Nethercutt upset him by 4,000 votes in a landslide year for the GOP. Nethercutt was rewarded with a seat on the powerful House Appropriations Committee. He ran against U.S. Sen. Patty Murray in 2004 and lost.

Nethercutt died Friday at the age of 79 after a long illness.

Republican Cathy McMorris Rodgers replaced Nethercutt in the House in 2004 and has held the seat for 20 years. She rose at one point to the no. 3 position in House leadership.

In February she said she would not seek reelection, and would look instead for new ways to serve her district. McMorris Rodgers, 54, did not say why she decided to leave, but analysts pointed to the dysfunction in Congress as one likely reason.

Her decision a few months before the filing deadline started a stampede of candidates in the right-leaning district.

Nine of them were invited to a debate in Spokane on June 4, filling the stage at North Central High School.

“In years of debates, this is my first one with nine candidates,” quipped Republican contender Michael Baumgartner, a former state senator, when he was introduced.

The 5th District covers all or parts of 12 counties in Eastern Washington, from the Idaho border on the east to Franklin County in the west. The majority of the residents live in Spokane County, which has a solid mix of Democrats and Republicans. But voters in the rural counties are overwhelmingly Republican, and McMorris Rodgers usually won reelection by comfortable margins.

Six Republicans and five Democrats are running in the Aug. 6 primary. But because McMorris Rodgers did not announce she was stepping down until February, the candidates had little time to raise money before the March 31 campaign finance reporting deadline.

Baumgartner, considered a front-runner for the post by some pundits, led all candidates with $403,000 raised as of March 31. State Rep. Jacquelin Maycumber was second with $139,000 among Republicans.

Among Democrats, Carmela Conroy had raised $153,000; Ann Marie Danimus had raised $140,000 and Bernadine Bank had raised $101,000 before the March deadline.

Candidates who had not raised enough money yet to be invited to the debate include registered nurse Bobbi Bennett-Wolcott, a Democrat, and farmer and writer Rick Valentine Flynn, a Republican.

McMorris Rodgers has not endorsed anyone in the campaign, and won’t until after the primary, Baumgartner said. But she did meet with him to discuss the challenges of being a parent and a member of Congress, said Baumgartner, who has five children.

“She was warm and enthusiastic about my potential,” said the former state senator who is now the Spokane County treasurer.

His main issues in the campaign are inflation, crime and reducing illegal immigration along the southern border, Baumgartner said.

At the June 4 debate, Republicans and Democrats mostly differed along standard party lines. But there was division over whether President Biden was legitimately elected president in 2020, and if the candidates were concerned about vote fraud in this year’s elections.

Several Republicans said they did not believe Biden was legitimately elected and that they were worried about fraud going forward.

With members of the audience noisily voicing approval or disapproval on the comments, Ferry County Commissioner Brian Dansel, a Republican and former Washington state senator, said Biden did not legitimately win the 2020 election.

“I don’t believe it,” Dansel said.

“We must go back to in-person voting with identification,” he added.

Republican Rene Holaday, who believes communism poses a grave threat to the nation, agreed that automatic voting machines and vote-by-mail generate enormous fraud, claims that have been repeatedly disproven by elections officials, including Washington’s former Secretary of State, Kim Wyman, a Republican.

“We have had stolen elections since 2000,” said Holaday, a former legislative staffer for state Rep. Matt Shea, who was kicked out of the state House for meeting with domestic terrorists several years ago. “All of these elections had fraud issues.”

Maycumber, R-Republic, who has the support of many law enforcement officers in the district, said she had “grave concerns” about Biden’s 2020 victory.

Not all Republicans on the debate stage agreed. 

Baumgartner believes Biden legitimately won the election. But he said both parties must work together to rebuild voter trust. He also wants a return to in-person voting.

Spokane City Council member Jonathan Bingle, a Republican, called Biden “a terrible president,” but said he was legitimately elected. He said election interference, rather than outright fraud, was a widespread problem that needed to be addressed.

For their part, several Democrats noted they believe both Biden in 2020 and Donald Trump in 2016 were legitimately elected.

Conroy, a former U.S. Foreign Service officer, noted that Hillary Clinton in 2016 conceded that she lost to Trump.

“Democrats did not storm the Capitol Building and try to overturn the outcome by force,” Conroy said, drawing gasps from the audience.

Democrat Bernadine Bank, a medical doctor, recommended that skeptics become involved in observing elections. “Elections are run by the finest people, with respect for the Constitution,” Bank said. “I did not see any voter fraud.”

Democrat Ann Marie Danimus, who owns a small marketing business, noted that demanding that people pay for identification documents in order to vote is unconstitutional because it would amount to a poll tax prohibited by the 24th Amendment.

The next question, on whether foreign aid to Israel should be conditioned on better treatment of Palestinians, was hardly less divisive.

Republicans in general came down strongly in favor of giving Israel all the aid it needed in the battle against Hamas. Some Democrats criticized Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu  and said Palestinian civilians should be treated better.

“God bless the Jews,” said Holaday, who described herself as a Christian and MAGA supporter. “They are our long-standing ally.”

Dansel complained about anti-Israel demonstrations on college campuses in which critics use “Nazi language” to condemn Israel.

“They are the only ally we have in the region,” Dansel said.

But Bank said Netanyahu was “not tenable,” while Democrat Matthew Welde, a lawyer, said future military aid to Israel should be “conditioned” to prevent the deaths of innocent civilians.

Danimus went further, saying all U.S. military aid to any country should be conditioned on good behavior. She noted that Turkey, a NATO nation, has sent aid to Hamas.

Candidates also differed on whether the Chinese should be forced to sell the social media site TikTok to a U.S. company.

“China is our single greatest enemy,” Holaday said, while Baumgartner warned that data collected by TikTok could be “used for nefarious purposes.”

Dansel, who served in the U.S. Agriculture Department during the Trump administration, said he was “analog in a digital world.” “I am not a fan of social media,” he said, while adding that China should be prevented from buying more U.S. farmland.

Chinese interests own a very small percentage of U.S. farmland, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. While foreign entities owned about 40 million U.S. agriculture acres in 2021, only 1% of those acres were held by Chinese people or companies. The U.S. has more than 890 million acres of farmland. Canadians own the most foreign-held agricultural and non-agricultural land in the U.S., 12.8 million acres, according to the USDA.

On the issue of gun control, most candidates stayed within party lines.

Dansel said he did not believe in any restrictions on gun ownership, and said he wanted armed guards in every school in the nation to prevent school shootings.

Bank said there should be waiting periods and effective background checks for someone to  acquire a gun, along with locked school doors. But she opposed arming teachers.

Bingle said he carried a handgun everyday in downtown Spokane. “I have three young children and I’m not leaving them without a father,” he said. He supported training teachers to carry weapons in classrooms.

On the hot-button issue of illegal immigration into the United States, several Republicans said the nation must finish building a wall across the southern border.

“This is an invasion,” Holaday said of illegal immigration, and contended that 100,000 members of the Chinese Communist Party had already infiltrated the United States.

“American sovereignty is the most important thing,” Maycumber said. “We are allowing human trafficking to work.”

Baumgartner agreed that human trafficking was a major border issue, and called for the wall to be finished.

“We need to stop the abuse of the asylum system,” Baumgartner added.

Bingle said it was no surprise that people wanted to live in the United States.

“This is the greatest country on God’s green Earth,” Bingle said. “We need to finish the wall.”

Democrats pointed to the House of Representatives recently failing to pass President Biden’s immigration bill.

“The House turned down the immigration bill because a convicted felon told them to,” Conroy said, drawing groans from the crowd.

But Dansel replied that former President Trump was not to blame for the border crisis. Rather it was Democrats, he said.

“The left wing wants more votes,” Dansel contended, which prompted one audience member to loudly compare that statement to bull manure.

Bank said the U.S. needed more staff to handle asylum seekers.

Conroy pointed out that the United States is a nation of immigrants.“All of us are immigrants,” she said.

Asked what they would do to combat climate change, several Republicans pointed to the embattled Lower Snake River dams in southeastern Washington. Environmental groups want the four dams removed to save endangered salmon runs, and have found allies in Democrats.

McMorris Rodgers made preserving the hydroelectric dams one of her top priorities, and Republicans seeking to replace her indicated they would do the same.

“The first thing is to protect the dams,” Baumgartner said.

Bingle said the four dams must be preserved and the region should also pursue more nuclear power.

Dansel disagreed that climate change was a pressing issue.

“Let’s not inflate the issue,” he said. “We’re still here. We’ve done incredible things over the years.”

Holaday contended that climate change was a construct of the United Nations.

“Global warming is an outright lie,” Holaday said. “What would I do to combat Bigfoot and unicorns? I would just carry on.”

Bank said “anybody with a science background can see climate change is a real thing.”

Danimus noted that climate change and illegal immigration are related issues.

“Climate migration is a big thing,” she said. “This is real.”

Regardless of individual issues, having Trump on the top of the Republican ticket is a plus in the 5th District, Baumgartner said.

“Trump is going to win in Eastern Washington, so it certainly doesn’t hurt,” Baumgartner said.

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About the Authors & Contributors

Geranios

Nicholas K. Geranios

Nicholas K. Geranios has spent 42 years as a news reporter, the last 40 with The Associated Press. He retired from the wire service in 2022 and lives in Spokane.