JHB near Cathlamet, WA on November 8, 2019. | Chona Kasinger for POLITICO Magazine
Rishika Dugyala is a digital producer at POLITICO.
Melanie Zanona is a congressional reporter at POLITICO.
VANCOUVER, Wash. — One of the last Republican congresswomen of color sat pensively, notepad out, coffee half-finished, thinking about how to avoid a political minefield.
It was a Friday in early November, the back end of Congress’ Veterans Day recess, and Jaime Herrera Beutler was huddled in a conference room at the Vancouver Clinic, the largest private clinic in that part of southwest Washington state. She had gathered a dozen health care professionals — doctors, licensed midwives, state health department officials and others — for a roundtable to discuss why so many women of color and their babies were dying.
This subject is personal for Herrera Beutler. Her oldest child, Abigail, was born without kidneys in 2013 and survived thanks to a transplant from her father. News clips of Abigail’s birth are framed on the congresswoman’s Washington, D.C., office wall, notched next to a Bible verse (Psalm 46:5: “God is in the midst of her, she shall not be moved; God will help her when morning dawns.”). Herrera Beutler leaned on her extended family and friends to get through Abigail’s four-month stay in the intensive care unit, but she knows many families don’t have the same resources. So, she posed this question to the group of experts: Would extending Medicaid to cover a full year after delivery significantly help more women?
Their unanimous answer: Yes. Seventy percent of new moms will have at least one health complication within a year of giving birth, but most women lose Medicaid coverage after 60 days, leaving them without access to affordable care.
Herrera Beutler nodded in agreement, but she was also concerned about the politics. “How am I going to talk about this? Extending Medicaid,” Herrera Beutler thought out loud, knowing that for her party any proposal that sounds like it promotes Obamacare would be considered heretical. “We are notexpandingMedicaid, we are justextendingit.”
Then she added sarcastically, “I’ll just go do that.”
The resounding laughter from her audience masked a very real bind for the five-term lawmaker. Moderate and publicity-deflecting by nature, Herrera Beutler is an outlier in a party dominated by a president whose combative style and divisive policies have alienated Hispanics and suburban women. For that very reason, Herrera Beutler’s profile — female, Hispanic and one of a dwindling number of Republican representatives from the West Coast — makes her a precious asset for the GOP, which has seen its female ranks in the House slashed by almost half since 2011. She is such a rare specimen within her caucus that party leadership has essentially given her permissionto diverge where necessary from the party line. That explains why, less than a week after the roundtable, Herrera Beutler co-sponsored The Helping MOMS Act, a bipartisan bill that would encourage states to extend coverage for new moms by increasing the share of Medicaid funding paid for by the federal government. The Trump administration is receptive, she said, adding with understatement, it will be “a little bit of a road.”
As she gears up for another reelection battle, Herrera Beutler is confronting the political challenges of being a kind of Republican who doesn’t always match neatly with her party. She’s facing the same opponent — and two other Democratic hopefuls — who came within 5 percentage points of unseating her in 2018. And Democrats, who note with relish that her margin of victory has shrunk by roughly 18 points over the past two cycles, have already established a ground game in her district. The Cook Political Report rates the district as likely Republican for 2020, but some consider her race the most competitive west of Texas.
Republicans say they are committed to protecting her; conservative groups dedicated to electing women and the National Republican Congressional Committee are rallying around her already. There is also pressure for her to take a more prominent role in party messaging, which would raise her profile and could draw more women of color into the party at a time when suburban educated women are fleeing the GOP in droves.
But as the daily war machine hits overdrive with the impeachment proceedings, Herrera Beutler is wary of what message she is expected to deliver. Yes, she voted against the impeachment inquiry in October, but she is far from an unquestioning supporter of President Donald Trump. In fact, she is open about the fact she wrote in former House Speaker Paul Ryan’s name on her ballot in 2016. And yes, she subscribes to the party’s beliefs on Obamacare repeal and a barrier on the southern border. But she voted against the GOP’s health care bill to replace much of Obamacare, which would have left millions uncovered. And she was one of 13 Republicans who rebuked Trump for his national wall emergency, saying it set a “dangerous” precedent to circumvent Congress. Matt Gaetz, she is not.
Herrera Beutler’s district, a mix of rural and urban communities nestled between Seattle and Portland, went for Trump by almost 8 points in 2016. Since then, there’s been an influx of newer and younger families and with it a rising disapproval of Trump in parts — though not all — of the 85 percent white district. Herrera Beutler says she is “open to supporting” Trump out of deference to voters’ preferences. But she is reluctant to do anything that might risk damaging a brand she has built over the past decade as the kind of bipartisan deal-maker that has almost been expunged from the GOP since Trump took office. Accordingly, the congresswoman scheduled policy-only events during her early November recess — addressing issues like veterans benefits, timber revenue and maternal mortality.
“My goal is not to be (Trump’s) foil, but it’s not to be his loyal servant,” Herrera Beutler told POLITICO Magazine. “To the degree that he is serving the people I represent, I’m there, I’m with him. To the degree that there’s a problem, I’ll oppose him.”
When Herrera Beutler was first electedto Congress in 2010, she rode a conservative tea party wave that swept the GOP back to power in the House. She was one of a near record 24 Republican women.
Even in a sea of fresh faces, Herrera Beutler was seen as a rising star because she ticked so many boxes for the party: young, Latina, from a key district on the West Coast. The party was eager to build its diversity and shore up its support among Hispanics, a key demographic that was growing disenchanted with the GOP’s hard-line immigration policies. A few months after being sworn-in, the 32-year-old was named to MSNBC’s “10 Hispanic politicians to watch” list.
Herrera Beutler, who was born in California to a white mother and a Mexican American father, already had experience navigating the political world. She served in the Washington state Legislature for four years after working as a senior aide on Capitol Hill for Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), now her colleague and mentor.
Yet despite a profile that could have easily put her on the inside track in Washington, Herrera Beutler chose not to seek the limelight — or a leadership path. She has mostly avoided the national media and cable TV interviews, even though her candid demeanor and memorable sound bites —like recently comparing Democrats’ impeachment inquiry to a “goat rodeo” —make her one of the more quotable lawmakers.
Unlike McMorris Rodgers, who served on the GOP leadership team, Herrera Beutler says she doesn’t like the idea of having to always be a team player or stick to talking points. And she takes more pleasure in bridge building than in the bomb throwing that has defined many of the Republicans in her freshman class, like Mick Mulvaney and Mike Pompeo, who both serve in the Trump administration.
“My class had a ton of opportunity to do national media. … Everybody wanted to hear from us,” she said in an interview with POLITICO Magazine in her Capitol Hill office. “And I specifically made the decision: That’s not my route here.”
Being a partisan foot soldier foreitherparty, she says, damages your credibility. “She’s not interested in throwing fits and making scenes,” said Caleb Heimlich, chairman of the Washington state GOP. Herrera Beutler has instead kept a laserlike focus on the constituents in her southwest Washington district — or “the bosses at home,” as she likes to call them.
Her colleagues describe Herrera Beutler as a workhorse who would rather project the image of a “hometown girl” than a “Washington insider.” Herrera Beutler talks about how she played basketball at Prairie High School, showed her horse at the county fair and spent weekends fishing with her family at Battle Ground Lake. All three of her children were born while she was in office, and she has routinely brought her children into the Capitol.
“My whole family’s involved in this. I’m not going to leave my babies on the other coast,” she said. “I had to nurse my newest on the floor this year. Was not trying to make waves, but it was a long vote series in the middle of the night.”
Herrera Beutler has shown an occasional independent streak in the Republican Conference, voting with Trump 82 percent of the time, which — in this loyalty-above-all climate — puts her at the bottom of the pack. For the most part, Herrera Beutler has had a long leash from Republican leadership and her constituents to do as she sees fit.
“It’s OK to disagree,” said Representative Tom Emmer, chairman of the House GOP’s campaign arm. The Minnesotan emphasized that Herrera Beutler knows her district better than anyone. “And I think that’s why she has been successful,” added Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the chairwoman of the GOP conference.
But that hyper-local strategy is on a potentially fatal collision course with the president’s chest-thumping brand of tribal politics. With Trump at the top of the ticket next year, national politics — and a bitter fight over impeachment —are threatening to consume congressional races up and down the ballot.
There were already signs of that in the midterm elections. Herrera Beutler defeated her Democratic challenger Carolyn Long by her slimmest margin of victory to date. And she blames it, at least in part, on how tough it has been to keep her brand separate from the president’s.
Herrera Beutler survived the suburban revolt over Trump in 2018 that put House Democrats back in power after eight years, but it decimated the ranks of GOP women. In Herrera Beutler’s district, an influx of young families has fueled suburban growth and increased the volume of anti-Trump criticism. Even for a legislator who has broken with the president on notable occasions and who has prioritized health care, there is a growing sense of guilt by association.
“Wow, I’m the enemy?” Herrera Beutler lamented to a group of female reporters at a recent lunch in Washington, D.C. “I didn’t even vote for him for crying out loud.”
Republican women, especially those of color, say they often feel more pressure than their male colleagues to serve as a voice for their entire community or answer for Trump. Herrera Beutler bears that burden especially as the only GOP congresswoman of color, though she does have some company in Republican resident commissioners Jenniffer González-Colón of Puerto Rico and Amata Radewagen of American Samoa, both of whom are nonvoting members.
“The standards were a lot higher” for Republican women, recalled former Representative Mia Love of Utah, an African American Republican who narrowly lost reelection last year. “You always have to rise to the occasion. It’s infuriating.”
The GOP is acutely aware it has a major woman and diversity problem, one that is getting worse by the day. An onslaught of key retirements this year — from Representative Susan Brooks, the NRCC’s recruitment chief, to Texas Representative Will Hurd, the House’s only black Republican — has left advocates reeling.
Outside GOP groups like Winning for Women, which hosted the lunch for female reporters, are pouring more resources into electing and recruiting more women and encouraging candidates to speak to local problems. It’s the strategy Democrats used to win the House in 2018, and it’s the strategy these conservative groups hope will increase the number of the GOP’s female members in 2020. Showcasing Herrera Beutler helps the GOP’s campaign arm recruit other Republican women who are wary ofrunning for office.
“Often, women have questions about, ‘How do you manage this?’ I use Jaime as a role model and hold her up,” Brooks said. “Jaime is a role model, whether she’s in leadership or not.”
Being a role model is one thing. Being asked to become a spokeswoman is another. “I get it a lot now,” Herrera Beutler said. She acknowledged that there could be an opening for her to become a bigger voice for the party on issues like health care. But, she added, “I’m not going to be an attack dog.”
Representing a district three time zonesfrom the Capitol has made it easier at times for Herrera Beutler to keep her focus local. She points to her bipartisan work on the bread-and-butter issues: Helping salmon (key to the health of the fishing industry) and hydropower dams coexist. Saving a couple of hundred thousand forestry-related jobs under President Barack Obama. Co-founding the congressional Maternity Care Caucus and, now, working to address child care deserts.
Still, national politics has a way of affecting hometown priorities. As far from Washington, D.C., as Herrera Beutler’s district may feel and as independent-minded as its residents may be, impeachment is a topic people can’t let go. It’s frustrating for the congresswoman, who believes the inquiry is diverting resources and attention that could be turned toward passing legislation. She has hedged on her own stance, voting against the inquiry after calling for a formal vote and now saying she’ll withhold judgment until the process concludes. But House GOP leaders are expecting few, if any, defections.
Carolyn Long hasn’t made impeachment or Trump the main thrust of her campaign against Herrera Beutler, but outside groups are doing that for her. After diplomat Gordon Sondland testified in the Ukraine investigation, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee sent an email noting, “Rep. Herrera Beutler wouldn’t comment on the bombshell news, instead mounting the age-old defense of the dog ate her homework saying she hadn’t reviewed the testimony because it was too many pages to read.”
Unlike in 2018, when Democrats were trying to flip three Washington congressional districts, all the fundraising and advertising resources are concentrated here. The DCCC was on the ground as early as this summer, having placed Herrera Beutler on its“2020 Retirement Watch List” just months after the close midterm election. Democratic operatives have been painting Herrera Beutler as absent in the district — because of her preference for telephone-only town halls — and caving to Trump when it really matters.
It’s too early for race-specific polling. But a few weeks before the formal House vote on opening an impeachment inquiry in October, a Democratic pollster found 44 percent of likely general election district voters supported impeachment — 43 percent opposed and 13 percent were unsure. Also ahead of the vote, Public Policy Polling conducted research for the liberal think tank Northwest Progressive Institute: 59 percent of voters in southwest Washington and the Olympic Peninsula supported impeachment, versus 38 percent who opposed it. That region includes most of Herrera Beutler’s district, plus five other counties.
In third-quarter fundraising, Long raked in more than $597,000 to Herrera Beutler’s roughly $454,000. Most contributions — on both sides — came from within the state. The congresswoman isn’t struggling, though: Overall, Herrera Beutler has raised $1,113,404 with almost $764,000 cash on hand. The two women have a history of bringing in big money. In 2018, they raised more than $6.5 million combined. With national groups already getting involved, the 2020 money total is likely to be much higher.
Kelly Dittmar, a researcher with the Center for American Women in Politics, said staying out of the fray will become almost impossible as the race grows more competitive.
“If Democrats can find a way to paint Jaime as a ‘Trump Republican,’ they will. Just as Republicans will paint the Democratic opponents as ‘Pelosi liberals,’” Dittmar said. In this district, neither side thinks those top-ticket ties will be particularly helpful.
Despite the creeping nationalization, Herrera Beutler isn’t as worried about being unfairly boxed in with Trump as she was in the midterms. The suburbs might be pulling away, but Heimlich, the state GOP chairman, said he sees a rising conservatism among blue-collar working communities along the coast. “I’m the right fit for this district,” Herrera Beutler said of the Democrats’ campaign against her. “And I’m a woman of color with young children. Like what? What is your beef with me anyway? Because this is exactly what you say you want in these districts.”
House Democratic strategists are aware of the messaging problems inherent in taking on Herrera Beutler. It doesn’t need to be personal, it doesn’t need to be “icky politics,” one strategist said, acknowledging that fighting to replace one moderate woman with another one doesn’t bring out people’s killer instincts. “It’s hard to push as hard as we would do for … [a] generic, white Republican male.”
But if Democrats aren’t eager to highlight Herrera Beutler’s demographic profile, Republicans aren’t rushing to do it either. The congresswoman doesn’t shy from talking about giving birth to her kids while in office, bringing her newborn onto the House floor to nurse during votes or being Hispanic. That doesn’t mean it’s part of the campaign push by national operatives, who are much more keen to focus on her record.
“This gets to the much deeper debate of, if you want to preserve the very limited representation of women of color, does that necessitate that you do more?” Dittmar said. The Republican Party “has said many times they’re not playing identity politics.”
Emmer, the NRCC chief, said this “is a very important district to us” because of Herrera Beutler’s background. The NRCC is going to fight hard to protect “one of the shining stars in our conference,” he added.
On Herrera Beutler’s part, she’s working on talking about her time on the Hill. She’s experimenting with social media. In one video on Facebook, she stands near the House Intelligence Committee meeting room, explaining that much of the impeachment inquiry has happened behind closed doors. In another video, she’s standing outside, the Capitol in the background, explaining why she voted against the inquiry.
“You feel a bit like a total dork, you’re sitting there, like, filming yourself,” she told POLITICO Magazine. “But what I’m finding is people follow that because they know you’re actually doing it and it’s authentic. And that’s all they care about.”
On her last day of her November visit home — a cold and rainy, typically Washington morning — Herrera Beutler arrived in the outdoor seating area for the district’s pre-Veterans Day parade. It was a Saturday, so she brought her family. She had baby Isana, 6 months, in a carrier; Abigail, 6, and Ethan, 3, holding on to either hand; and her husband, Daniel, in tow with the bags. A few folks stopped by to say hello or hand one of her kids a goody. Halfway through the event, Herrera Beutler stepped away. Time for a video. Angling her phone so she could get Isana and the parade street in the shot, Herrera Beutler began:
“May we never take for granted what makes the United States so exceptional, and there’s no better day to remember our rights and our freedoms than Veterans Day,” she said. When she finished, she handed the phone back to her staff with instructions to post the clip on the upcoming Monday. Then, surveying her family, she decided not to go to any other events after the parade. “I don’t think the kids are going to make it.”
They had a long flight back to D.C. the next day.
“You are joining a live telephone town hallmeeting with Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler,” a male staffer said. “Please press star three to get into the question queue.”
Herrera Beutler and her team kept repeating that line during the roughly one-hour telephone town hall. It was 8:30 on a Thursday night in Washington, D.C., and 5:30 in Washington state. During these town halls, of which she has done 30,Herrera Beutler says people are often driving home from work or giving their kids baths or keeping one ear on the phone as they do some menial task. Her opponents deride these telephone town halls as impersonal conference calls that indicate she’s scared of actually facing the voters.
Herrera Beutler swats that criticism away. Telephone calls, she said, just work better. One call can reach 4,000 people at a time, across suburban and rural areas. And people are more comfortable asking questions over the phone, Herrera Beutler said, since some of the face-to-face town halls she used to hold were — in the words of one constituent — like “The Jerry Springer Show.”
This call came on Nov. 14, one day after the first public impeachment hearings. It was Herrera Beutler’s first town hall with the general public since she had voted against the inquiry. After summarizing the legislation she passed and events she held while home, the lawmaker confronted the issue she knew was coming.
No one is above the law, she said, including the president. She hasn’t really supported Trump’s foreign policy, and it’s important for military aid to go to Ukraine. However, she said, this inquiry is very one-sided — far from the bipartisan effort launched against Presidents Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton — with House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff deciding what information is leaked and who can be called on to testify.
“Let me put it in context,” she said. “Say you give one lawyer unrestricted access to the members of the jury for a month before the trial begins. That’s called tainting the jury, which no court of law in our country would allow.”
Susan from Onalaska was going to ask about health care but changed her mind. She had been following Fox News analyst Andrew Napolitano, who has been critical of the president’s defense, and needed Herrera Beutler to clarify a few points: Aren’t Democrats following rules Republicans enacted in 2015? Aren’t depositions always taken in secret? Isn’t Trump’s ask of Ukraine an abuse of power?
“Let me take a whack at this,” Herrera Beutler said before ticking off a quick list of answers: The rules were never used for an investigation into a president, Obama’s counsel had been present for secret depositions, and it’s only a crime if Trump withheld money under the threat of coercion for a leg up in 2020.
Fran from Vancouver had a different view, asking how to persuade Democrats to “get on with the business of running the country.” Actually, Herrera Beutler said, rank-and-file Republicans and Democrats are equally frustrated. No one wants to have to tell voters that they’ve been working a lot, but not accomplishing a lot.
The congresswoman perked up when residents asked about endangered salmon fisheries (“Oh, my goodness, yes!”), reducing homelessness and her position against creating a light-rail system (a rapid-bus transit system would be easier to upgrade). For the most part, district voters appreciate that she hasn’t been a leading, divisive GOP voice. Earlier, Fran thanked her: “I feel like you look at everything from as many views as you can and as fair as you can.”
“I try not to be rude and condescending and provoking,” Herrera Beutler saidon the call. “I think that’s one way to earn some goodwill on the other side. … If you spend all your time sowing discord, that’s what you’re going to reap.”
But again, this is an era of national politics coloring local contests, especially for those rising through the ranks. As party operatives encourage Herrera Beutler to take a more public role, she’s trying to figure out whether a path for her to do that — the way she wants to do it — even exists.
“If I’m going to enter into this, I want to have something positive to bring that would be more unifying for people,” she told POLITICO Magazine. “I don’t know if there’s a role or not.”