VANCOUVER, Wash. — In March, five months before he became the Republican nominee in a Washington State congressional race, Joe Kent appeared on a webcast hosted by a Gen-Z white nationalist group called the American Populist Union. Kent, who would soon be endorsed by Donald Trump, was there to explain his disavowal of Nick Fuentes, a smirking 24-year-old far-right influencer whom The New York Times has described as “a prominent white supremacist.”
On one side of the split screen was David Carlson, the American Populist Union’s baby-faced chief content officer. On the other was Kent, a movie-star-handsome former Green Beret in a plaid flannel shirt, with an American flag hanging behind him. What followed was a 45-minute conversation in which Kent attempted a dance that’s become common in today’s G.O.P.: remaining in the good graces of the far right while putting some distance between himself and its most abhorrent avatars.
Kent had spoken on the phone to Fuentes, a Holocaust denier and Vladimir Putin admirer who believes women shouldn’t be allowed to vote, earlier in his campaign to unseat Representative Jaime Herrera Beutler, one of the 10 Republicans who’d voted to impeach Trump. (They apparently discussed social media strategy.) Their association had become a problem in Kent’s primary, and eventually Kent tweeted that he didn’t want Fuentes’s endorsement because of “his focus on race/religion.” But this rejection infuriated some of Kent’s most reactionary supporters; Fuentes himself went after Kent in a three-and-a-half hour livestream. So Kent appeared on the American Populist Union’s webcast (the group has since changed its name to American Virtue) to explain himself.
There, he spoke about how white people are discriminated against in America, called for an immigration moratorium, and said the United States is the only country that “recognizes that our rights are inherent and they come from God, not from government.” Carlson pressed him: Why, given Kent’s own religious and nationalist convictions, did he consider Fuentes “divisive”?
“It’s more of a tactics thing,” Kent said. He noted that he has “moral qualms” about Fuentes’s giggling praise for Hitler, but said that where they really differ is on strategy. “Running out there and saying, ‘This movement is for white people and Christians only,’” said Kent, “that is not how you win elections at all.”
The question of how you win an election in Washington’s Third Congressional District — a stretch along the southeastern border with Oregon that’s been reliably Republican, voting for Trump by four points in 2020 but still considered fairly moderate — is not just a political debate for right-wing YouTube. The race, pitting Kent, a burgeoning MAGA-world star, against Marie Gluesenkamp Perez, a 34-year-old rural working-class Democrat who is emphasizing abortion rights, has national implications.
It’s one that will show us whether Republicans overreached in nominating candidates who speak almost exclusively to their base, or whether politicians like Kent really are the party’s future. It will show us just how potent the backlash to the overturning of Roe v. Wade is. And it will show us what kind of House we’re going to have come 2023: one that is capable of legislating, or one that makes the Tea Party look tame.
In other words, the race in Washington’s Third is an almost perfect microcosm of the broader political forces at work in the fall midterm elections.
You’ve heard it before: Until recently, it seemed inevitable that a red wave would crash over America in November. The Democrats’ congressional majority is paper-thin, the party in power typically loses midterm seats, and Joe Biden’s poll numbers were abysmal. But lately the forecast has turned cloudier, and districts like Washington’s Third have become surprisingly competitive.
Across the country, Republicans have nominated politically inexperienced MAGA fanatics who could lose otherwise winnable races — people like the Ohio House candidate J.R. Majewski, a QAnon promoter who performs pro-Trump rap songs and reportedly misrepresented his military service.
Kent is one of the more polished of the MAGA candidates. His military service — 11 tours, mostly in Iraq — is very real, and he has an immensely sympathetic personal story. In 2019, his wife, a Navy cryptologic technician named Shannon Kent, was killed by an ISIS suicide bomber in northeastern Syria, leaving Joe as the single father to a baby and a toddler. This horrific loss, he’s said, helped propel him into politics. Kent holds what he calls the “administrative state” responsible for his wife’s death, arguing that unelected bureaucrats subverted Trump’s attempts to pull American troops out of Syria.
“They were supposed to be out Christmas Eve of 2018,” he told me, accusing people close to Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who resigned over the Syria pullout, of slow-rolling the process. “I 100 percent blame the administrative state.”
Kent’s anger is understandable, as is his deep disillusionment with the war on terror, which he now sees as a scheme, built on an edifice of lies, to enrich the military-industrial complex. America’s foreign wars, he said, were “a great way for the ruling class to extract wealth and give themselves more power.”
It’s hard to entirely disagree with that. But Kent’s fury at the establishment has led him to what was, at least before Trump, the right-wing fringe. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with there being a white people special interest group,” he said on Carlson’s webcast.
Kent said that the Jan. 6 insurrection “reeks of an intelligence operation” and he wants all the “political prisoners” arrested for invading the Capitol released. His campaign, The Associated Press’s Brian Slodysko reported, paid a member of the Proud Boys, one of the groups that led the Jan. 6 attack, $11,375 for “consulting” services. He’s appeared at several rallies with Joey Gibson, the founder of a Vancouver-based Christian Nationalist group called Patriot Prayer that has often worked in concert with the Proud Boys.
When I asked Kent why he went on Carlson’s webcast, he claimed he didn’t really know who he was. “Honestly, it seemed like a venue where a lot of younger guys listened to, so why not try and get in front of that audience,” he said. He described the Proud Boys, who’ve engaged in especially violent brawls in Portland, Ore., as “a drinking group” that acted in self-defense against the lawlessness of antifa and Black Lives Matter.
Despite his hard-right associations, the Republican edge in the midterms probably would have made Kent a shoo-in in his district before the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. But the decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization has mobilized pro-choice voters nationwide.
Last month Pat Ryan, a Democrat running on abortion rights, won a special election in a closely divided district in upstate New York. A week later, a Democrat, Mary Peltola, beat Sarah Palin in a special election for Alaska’s lone House seat. “Democrats are punching above their weight in special elections since Dobbs,” said an analysis in FiveThirtyEight. While the November elections can be different from special elections, the challenge for Democrats remains the same: Can they punch above their weight in Washington’s Third?
If Kent is one likely face of the future Republican Party, Gluesenkamp Perez, an auto shop owner, offers an intriguing path forward for the Democrats, who need to become competitive in Republican-leaning districts without sacrificing their ideals. She’s counting on a Dobbs backlash, especially since Kent favors a nationwide abortion ban. “It doesn’t matter what a woman’s political party is,” she said of women she meets on the trail. “If they’re old enough to remember what illegal abortions looked like, they do not want to go back.”
Gluesenkamp Perez has spoken about how, in 2020, she had a miscarriage and needed medical attention. One of the few places that could see her right away was Planned Parenthood, but to get inside, she had to make her way through a wall of protesters. It brought home to her the outrageous presumption of those who’d dictate to women what they can do with their bodies.
“Who is going to write a bill that can encompass all the complexity of giving birth and being pregnant?” she said. “That will not happen. There is no role for government in making these decisions.” The Pacific Northwest has a strong libertarian streak, and Gluesenkamp Perez said she meets people who were outraged by mask mandates and are now similarly angry about anti-abortion restrictions on bodily autonomy.
Though fund-raising has recently picked up, Gluesenkamp Perez’s campaign is still running on a shoestring. It currently consists of four paid staff members, including a young political director living in a camper in Gluesenkamp Perez’s driveway. Kent, whose appearances on Tucker Carlson’s show and Steve Bannon’s podcast have contributed to his national profile, has a staff of eight.
A recent survey by Public Policy Polling had Kent leading by three percentage points, 47 percent to 44 percent, within the poll’s margin of error. Nine percent were undecided. The Gluesenkamp Perez campaign’s internal polling shows her with a slight lead, and though internal polling should always be taken with a grain of salt, The Cook Political Report has changed the district’s rating from “Solid Republican” to “Lean Republican.”
Because of the Trumpist candidates Republicans have nominated — people like Herschel Walker in Georgia, Blake Masters in Arizona and Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania — some forecasts favor Democrats to maintain control of the Senate. The House, where gerrymandered districts give Republicans a strong advantage, is a different story.
“For Democrats to retain a majority, they will have to pull the equivalent of an inside straight, holding virtually all their tossup districts in addition to flipping some tossup seats Republicans currently hold,” reported The Times.
Democrats need to do a few things simultaneously. They need to turn out pro-choice women, shore up their edge with Latinos and stop hemorrhaging rural voters. Gluesenkamp Perez is unusually well positioned to try to do all three.
Her father, a Mexican immigrant, was an evangelical preacher; she told me she learned public speaking in his Texas church. She and her husband live, with their 13-month-old son, off an unpaved road in a house they built themselves “nail by nail,” as she likes to say on the stump. Like Kent, she is good-looking, resembling a taller, lankier Winona Ryder, which shouldn’t matter but probably does.
The shop Gluesenkamp Perez runs with her husband, Dean’s Car Care, employs eight people, and Gluesenkamp Perez speaks passionately about the struggles of both small-business owners and working parents. She often talks about putting infant noise-protecting headphones on her baby registry; because she couldn’t find a day care spot, her son spent a lot of time with her at the auto shop.
“If you think you can spend 15K a year on day care, per kid, and save for retirement, and save up for a mortgage, you’re living in a really different economy than me and most of the people that I know,” she said at one rally.
In high school, Gluesenkamp Perez told me, she was so obsessed with civics that she was active in both the Young Republicans and the Young Democrats. It was only when she was a freshman in college and her brother came out as gay that she decided the Republican Party wasn’t for her.
Though she looks nothing like Pennsylvania’s Democratic Senate candidate, John Fetterman, something about her reminds me of him. Both are part of working-class communities, and use cultural fluency as much as political rhetoric to try to connect with voters who might feel alienated by the national Democratic Party.
Gluesenkamp Perez doesn’t always mention her immigrant heritage when she’s campaigning, at least in front of white, English-speaking audiences. (Her district is about 11 percent Latino.) “I’d say a lot of moderates feel like it’s somehow identity politics,” she said. She leans harder on her rural credentials: “We get our water from a well. I get my internet from a radio tower. And that means a lot to people in rural communities,” she said.
Gluesenkamp Perez’s first political campaign was in 2016, when she ran for county commission in Skamania County, the heavily forested area along the Columbia River Gorge where she lives. The county is very conservative, and she lost, but she outperformed Hillary Clinton by almost seven points.
“I really learned how to listen more deeply about what the actual concerns are,” she said. “Because there’s sort of a top level of Fox News talking points, and then if you keep listening, and you go a little deeper, you can start to hear, what are the ways that that’s manifesting for you — what’s really influencing your quality of life.”
It was Kent who inspired her to jump into the congressional race. Gluesenkamp Perez recalled the run-up to the 2016 election, when she was surrounded by evidence of enthusiasm for Trump and worried that national Democrats were ignoring it. She saw similar signs, she said, with Kent. “It was basically Joe Kent wallpaper in Skamania County,” she said. People she would have expected to have Herrera Beutler signs just didn’t.
“I was not in this race to take Jaime Herrera Beutler out,” she told me. “Did I love her? No, but I wasn’t going to upset my life to run against her. But Joe Kent is dangerous, and I really felt like the same brand of Democrat with a pedigree and a graduate degree was not the solution right now.”
Last Saturday afternoon, I watched Gluesenkamp Perez speak at a brewery here in downtown Vancouver. She was introduced by Washington’s attorney general, Bob Ferguson, who boasted of winning 53 lawsuits against the Trump administration. Gluesenkamp Perez thanked him for his work, which she said “derailed Trump’s march towards fascism. And let’s be very clear. Joe Kent is picking up that same banner of fascism. Of white nationalism. Of the Proud Boys. And he has got to be stopped before it is too late!”
Gluesenkamp Perez knows talking about fascism, like identity, can be inflammatory; witness the freakout in some quarters when Biden called the MAGA movement “semi-fascist.” But she also thinks that authoritarianism is something a good chunk of people in the district worry about. In an internal poll, her campaign asked voters which issues will determine their choice for Congress. “Protecting democracy,” came in first, closely followed by the cost of living. Abortion was third.
After Gluesenkamp Perez, a man who doesn’t often speak at Democratic rallies took the mic. David Nierenberg, a hedge fund manager who calls Mitt Romney his “best friend,” was probably Jaime Herrera Beutler’s biggest fund-raiser in the district. Now he’s backing Gluesenkamp Perez.
Nierenberg told me he’s been doing political fund-raising in the community since 1999. “I have never been involved with such a joyous and ecstatic and enthusiastic fund-raising effort as I’m seeing here,” he said. “And I think that is the combination of the huge differences between these two candidates, where Marie is likable, approachable, moderate, well spoken, and then we have a flame-throwing extremist on the other side.”
But one of Kent’s key advantages is that he doesn’t have the affect of a flame-throwing extremist. He’s smooth and affable, without Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene’s coiled, wild-eyed intensity or Representative Matt Gaetz’s smarm. “He’s got a very clean-cut, square-jawed sort of marketing, and if you’re not really paying attention, you’re going to get distracted by the hair,” said Gluesenkamp Perez. He has a talent for saying outrageous things as if they were banal common sense.
I met Kent last Sunday, at a Republican picnic held in a wooded grove in Skamania County, and then saw him speak again the next day at an outdoor town hall in a rural area called Amboy. He made it quite clear what he intends to do in Congress. “Our agenda for the first two years is simple,” he said at the town hall. “Impeachment, obstruction and oversight. The Biden agenda dies off in the crib.”
Of course, any Republican majority will obstruct and investigate Biden, but the size and composition of a potential Republican caucus still matters. It will determine, among other things, just how many impeachments and government shutdowns we’re in for, and how often the House uses its power to protect Trump and reify MAGA conspiracy theories. The more candidates like Kent get elected, the less reason Republicans will have to make any concession to a reality that exists outside the Trumpist bubble.
In his speeches, Kent promised to impeach Biden on Day One, and then Vice President Kamala Harris (“one of the lead fund-raisers for antifa and B.L.M. during the summer of 2020”), Attorney General Merrick Garland and the secretary of homeland security, Alejandro Mayorkas. At the town hall, he emphasized his willingness to shut down the government: “I used to work in the federal government,” he said. “It can shut down. It’s really not a big deal.”
In this environment, a Gluesenkamp Perez win wouldn’t just give Democrats an extra seat, or provide a shining example for how to run in purplish regions: It would be a cautionary tale warning Republicans that there’s a price for marching into the fever swamps.
As for Kent, his attempt to distance himself from Fuentes shows that he’s capable of modulating his political strategy. Most of the time, it seems, he doesn’t think he has to. A Kent victory would signal to other Republicans that even outside of ultra-red districts, there’s no need to appeal to moderates, and little price to be paid for courting the hard right.
On the stump, in addition to listing all of those people he would impeach, Kent promised to hold Anthony Fauci “accountable” for the “scam that is Covid.” I asked him what holding Fauci accountable means. “Criminal charges,” said Kent. But what charges, I asked? “Murder,” he replied, as it were the most obvious answer in the world.
The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: email@example.com.
Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook, Twitter (@NYTopinion) and Instagram.