WA-4: The Surprising Challenge

Earlier in the week five-term Washington Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-Sunnyside) was considered a retirement possibility, and such speculation grew when 2022 Republican US Senate finalist Tiffany Smiley began preparing a run for his congressional seat.

If Ms. Smiley was betting on a Newhouse retirement, she badly miscalculated. Now, with the Congressman’s re-election announcement and campaign now fully underway, we apparently could see a very interesting August primary unfolding in the Great Northwest.

Like California and Louisiana (the latter state will change its primary system after the 2024 election), Washington employs the top two jungle primary system. All the candidates are placed on the same ballot and the top two finishers, regardless of political party affiliation or vote percentage attained, advance to the November general election.

Aside from Rep. Newhouse and Ms. Smiley, race car driver and Navy veteran Jerrod Sessler (R), armed with an endorsement from former President Donald Trump, rounds out the current field. At this point before the state’s May 24th candidate filing deadline, the only Democrat mentioned as a possible candidate is college professor and 2022 congressional finalist Doug White.

The dynamics of the race suggest that a Newhouse-Smiley contest could stretch into the general election. Much depends upon a Democrat entering the field and just how many votes Sessler can take from the other two Republicans. Central Washington’s 4th District, that stretches from Canada to Oregon, carries a FiveThirtyEight data organization rating of R+25, meaning it is the safest Republican seat in the Democratic state. Therefore, a double Republican general election is a realistic scenario.

Should the Democrats’ file a candidate, the chances of the individual qualifying for the general election are now greatly enhanced. If the Republican vote is split three ways, the Democratic voters coalescing around their one candidate could well create a Republican-Democrat general election. This would be Congressman Newhouse’s best case scenario. In all early vote configurations, Mr. Newhouse is pegged to finish a strong first in the August 6th jungle primary.

Therefore, in a race featuring Newhouse, Smiley, Sessler, and a Democrat, it is assumed that Rep. Newhouse places first. Mr. Sessler would shave conservative votes, and the Democratic contender would attract the lion’s share from his party. Therefore, Ms. Smiley would be left with a smaller portion of the centrist Republican vote, which could allow the Democrat to slip by her and into second place.

Mr. Newhouse was first elected to Congress in 2014 after serving as the Director of the Washington Department of Agriculture. Prior to this service, he was thrice elected to the state House of Representatives. He began his congressional career with a tight initial election victory over former NFL football player and conservative activist Clint Didier in a double Republican general election. Mr. Newhouse would defeat Didier again two years later by a large margin and has averaged 65.2% of the vote in his three subsequent re-election campaigns.

Tiffany Smiley became one of the early 2022 campaign cycle’s star Republican candidates when she challenged Sen. Patty Murray (D) and began receiving favorable reviews within the Washington, DC PAC community. She raised over $21 million for the race, but the Washington State political trends were too much for her to overcome, and she fell 57-43% to the veteran incumbent.

With Rep. Newhouse being one of two remaining House Republicans – California Rep. David Valadao* (R-Hanford) being the other – to vote for the second Trump impeachment, the former President’s endorsement for Mr. Sessler, at the time the only announced Newhouse opponent, was easily forthcoming. Since Trump did not endorse Ms. Smiley in the 2022 Senate race, it is unlikely that he will change his stance for this election.

Ms. Smiley still carries a $1 million debt from her 2022 campaign, and running again for federal office could allow her to potentially reduce that figure in forging a new political effort.

On the other hand, if the Smiley candidacy announcement was a “roll of the dice,” thinking that she would be well positioned to claim the open seat if the Congressman retired, she still has time to reverse course.

Just because an individual announces a federal candidacy and files a House campaign committee with the Federal Election Commission does not mean that he or she must follow through and officially file. Ms. Smiley has until May 24th to make a final decision, and it will be worth watching to see if she ultimately runs.

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