“When [Herrera Butler and Newhouse] cast their vote to impeach President Trump, they knew that compared to other people across the country, they had an electoral system that allowed them to vote on their conscience,” said Alex Hayes, a longtime GOP strategist in Washington state.
In Washington, voters of any party can vote for whoever they want. The top two voters – regardless of party – advance to the general election. In contrast, in closed primaries, the parties hold the elections and allow only their own registered voters to vote, with the winner in the general election facing the opposing party’s choice.
Despite the headwinds Herrera Beutler and Newhouse face from within their own parties, both still have strong chances to advance to the general election, as their fates aren’t just determined by the wrath of Trump’s MAGA stalwarts. Newhouse and Herrera Beutler can make up for the loss of the conservative base by drawing independent and possibly even Democratic votes. Even if they finish second in their primaries, they still go through to the general – where incumbents have a better chance of winning.
“It forces you as a candidate to act like you’re running in the general election because the August primaries aren’t just your voters,” said Caleb Heimlich, chairman of the Republican Party in Washington state. “It’s not just Republicans who choose their favorite Republican — it’s all voters who vote.”
The knock on closed primaries is that often a minority of a party’s voters have undue power to nominate candidates too extreme to be viable in general elections. The open primary system gives a vote to a larger number of voters in a state and frees candidates from strict adherence to national party doctrine. Many proponents say open primaries can mitigate political polarization and give more power to political minorities.
Forty-two percent of Americans in 2021 identified as independents (compared to 29 percent as Democrats and 27 percent as Republicans), according to Gallup. However, those independent voters are often excluded from the general election candidate selection process because they are not eligible to participate in closed primaries. The reclassification, meanwhile, has removed most of the “swing” from the general election. Of America’s 435 House districts, only 30 will be considered competitive in this November’s election.
“A large population of voters who are not eligible to vote in other systems — swing voters, people who are not part of the political party — are part of Washington state primaries,” Hayes said, adding that candidates are encouraged to contact every voter in their district, not just their base. “It’s a process that’s much more entrenched in the actual opinion of voters in your community.”
Washington’s Open Primary System dates back to 2004, but the state has been at the forefront of the US primaries for more than a century. In 1907, Washington became the first state to allow voters to elect party candidates for the general election. In 1935, Washington was also the first to switch to a “general primary” system, where primary voters could vote across party lines. In 2000, open primaries were dealt a blow when the Supreme Court declared California’s “jungle primary” unconstitutional on the grounds that it violated political parties’ right to free association with others of similar beliefs.
This started four years of turmoil as Washington state tried to land on a new constitutionally acceptable primary system. The impartial top two open primaries, where voters aren’t registered with any party and candidates can identify politically in their candidate biographies but aren’t nominated by the party, was the solution — and was approved by 60 percent of voters in 2004. . California and Alaska adopted similar models in 2010 and 2020 respectively. (In Alaska, the top four candidates advance.) Louisiana has a modified open primary system, with all candidates running in the general election, and if one doesn’t get more than 50 percent of the vote, the two best advance to a runoff election .
“When there’s a primary that is only for one political party, the Democrats tend to move as far to the left as possible to try and win the grassroots, and the Republicans go all the way to the right. Then they scramble back to the center for the general,” said Sam Reed, who oversaw the development and passage of the open primary system in the early 2000s. “Well, that was nonsense. And we wanted to get rid of that.”
District 3, home of Herrera Beutler, is one of the most swinging districts in the state. In the largest city, Vancouver (not Canada), candidates must court both liberals who traveled north from Portland, Oregon in search of cheaper mortgages, as well as members of the far-right group Patriot Prayer. When Herrera Beutler was elected in 2010, she became the first Republican to represent the district in a decade, and the first-ever Hispanic to represent Washington State in Congress.
Her best-known challenger is Joe Kent, Trump-backed Joe Kent, a retired Army vet and Fox News regular whose flannel shirts and chiseled features come straight from central casting. However, Kent has struggled to thread the needle between committed conservative and far-right nationalist, distancing himself from alleged connections to white supremacists and Nazism while proudly praising his endorsement of Trump and reiterating the false claim that the 2020 election was fraudulent. .
The Kent campaign assumes that the district’s Democrats will stick with their sole candidate rather than support Herrera Beutler and that the Republican base will follow Kent, leaving Herrera Beutler out of the running.
“I think there is a strong conservative base and also a strong anti-establishment base in this district,” a Kent spokesperson told POLITICO. “In the primaries, this district mostly goes to non-established candidates.”
But there are multiple challengers from Herrera Beutler’s right and that could divide the conservative votes. Conservative podcaster and public speaker Heidi St. John was left in the race until mid-July when a Massachusetts-based super PAC backing her dumped more than $700,000 into the race.
In addition to traditional issues such as the military and jobs, the St. John and Kent campaign websites highlight a range of national, Trump-backed Republican talking points — from election fraud to critical race theory. Herrera Beutler’s problems include a more local tendency, such as problems with the salmon industry and the region’s opioid crisis.
“The strategy has not changed [since 2020]; she still focuses on local issues,” campaign spokesman Craig Wheeler said, adding that many of Herrera Beutler’s core issues in this race — such as maternal health or inflation — affect many people, regardless of party. “She’s not a national attention seeker. She’s not running to be a talking head on a cable news network.”
Newhouse, meanwhile, runs in a much more conservative district where he regularly wins with over 60 percent of the vote. He headed Trump’s re-election commission in Washington state in 2020, but after January 6, he broke with the former president and ultimately voted to impeach.
He now has half a dozen challengers, which bodes well for him: that many challengers can divide the far-right conservative votes in his district and allow him to still finish first or second in the primary. Newhouse has previously fought a fellow Republican in the general election. In 2014 fellow Republican Clint Didier outperformed Newhouse in the primaries, but Newhouse gained more independent and Democratic votes in the general election to narrowly beat Didier.
Newhouse’s biggest challenger this year is Loren Culp, a noted politician and former police chief who has run for governor several times. Culp has garnered strong conservative Republican support. He has Trump’s backing in this primary, but his fundraising has lagged. However, as long as Newhouse makes it through the primaries, he has a better chance of a general election victory — he already has a proven track record of doing well with swing voters and Democrats in the general.
“[Voters in this system] can really vote for the person and not the party — the person they think is best qualified for the office, the person who best represents them — and not be limited by party,” Reed said. “I really expect this to continue to develop as a trend that will be adopted across the country.”