Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler thrust herself into the national spotlight on Friday when the Washington Republican came out with a stunning account of Donald Trump's actions on the day of the Capitol insurrection. In a statement put out on the eve of the vote in Trump's Senate impeachment trial, Herrera Beutler said that House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy told her that in a conversation with the then-president on Jan. 6, Trump appeared to side with the mob, telling him the rioters were "more upset about the election than you are."
For most Republicans, particularly those in ruby-red districts, the statement would seem to doom any hope of avoiding a primary challenge and winning reelection. But for Herrera Beutler, a Republican in deep blue Washington state, the potential ramifications may not be so straightforward.
While it's too early to tell how the majority of her constituents may respond come next year's midterm elections, donors and political experts said on Saturday that Herrera Beutler's independent streak may actually serve to strengthen her hold on southwest Washington.
"I could see a primary in 2022 where Republicans put forward a very clear Trump candidate. Her weakness will be on the right," said Mark Stephan, an associate professor of political science at Washington State University. "But I think there will be Democrats who will vote for her because they felt she acted courageously in this case."
Some donors have already begun lining up to reward the six-term congresswoman for breaking ranks to speak out against the former president, according to one wealthy benefactor. Her account of McCarthy's conversation with Trump on Jan. 6, first reported by a local newspaper in Washington last month, was entered as evidence Saturday in the Senate impeachment trial of the former president.
"It's another demonstration of tremendous principle and personal courage," said David Nierenberg, a career investor who lives in Camas, Wash. Nierenberg, a close friend and former colleague of Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, is also one of the largest political donors in Washington state.
"I have told Jaime ... I will do everything that I can do to raise contributions for her, not only from people I know in this district, not only people throughout the Pacific Northwest, but many friends all around the country," Nierenberg said.
That financial call to arms comes as moderate Republicans like Nierenberg anticipate a confrontation with their districts' Trump supporters. As senators spent part of Saturday debating whether to call Herrera Beutler as an impeachment witness, she was already coming under criticism from ardent Trump supporters like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, who warned on Twitter that Trump voters "are watching."
Winning in a purple district
Southwest Washington, once a reliably blue Democratic stronghold composed of middle-class, blue-collar workers, has become more purple in recent years as jobs have dwindled. The state's 3rd District, which Herrera Beutler represents, encompasses seven counties, as well as parts of an eighth, and largely favored Trump in both 2016 and 2020.
Rural stretches of the district may favor Trump, but its most populous county, Clark County, overlaps with the Portland, Ore., metropolitan area. Its population has grown in recent years and still consistently skews Democratic. President Biden won Clark County by 5 percentage points.
Nierenberg said he's receiving calls from peers locally, regionally and nationally who want to support Herrera Beutler should she run again in 2022.
"There should be no question that Jaime will be capable of running a very well-financed and well-focused campaign," said Nierenberg, who gave $11,200 to Herrera Beutler's reelection campaign last fall.
"If her potential adversaries want to make character and ethics among their issues, I would just say they should be very careful what they wish for," he said.
"They feel betrayed"
Herrera Beutler electrified her constituents a month ago when she joined nine other Republicans in the House to break ranks and vote to impeach Trump on the charge of inciting the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
Outcry erupted among Republican organizations that still supported Trump. Clark County Republican Women said Herrera Beutler would "never receive our votes or support again."
The day after the impeachment vote, Joel Mattila, chair of the Clark County Republican Party, said his phone had been "blowing up all day long from old party regulars to just your average voters, and there is a lot of disappointment."
Reached by phone Saturday, Mattila said Herrera Beutler's latest moves continue to frustrate conservatives.
"She's obviously doubling down," he said. "Not only did she vote to impeach, but she became the star witness in the Democrats' impeachment charade."
Mattila couldn't say whether any conservative candidates could emerge to challenge Herrera Beutler, but he said someone certainly will — calling it a "foregone conclusion."
"They feel betrayed," he said of local conservatives. "They feel betrayed by what the congresswoman has been doing over the last month and a half."
Winning over centrists
Herrera Beutler has proved a political heavyweight in the district. First elected in 2010, she has regularly won elections by double digits. Her closest race was in 2018 against Democratic challenger Carolyn Long, whom she beat by 5 points. But Herrera Beutler won the 2020 rematch by 13 points.
Washington state has an open, top-two primary system, meaning two candidates of the same party could theoretically advance to the general election.
Stephan of Washington State University said Herrera Beutler is likely making up for any lost conservative voters by picking up more centrists. He said he expected that the ramifications of her stance on impeachment will likely take shape in the year ahead.
Now that Herrera Beutler has been so vocal in Trump's second impeachment, said Stephan, her future, as well as that of other Republicans who broke ranks, will likely be inversely influenced by Trump's control over the Republican Party.
"That could serve her incredibly well in the years ahead if the party decides it needs to go in a new direction from where it's been the last four years," he said. "Or this could put her in this very distinct minority that is just left to the margins."
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
A congresswoman from southwest Washington State was unexpectedly at the center of the Senate impeachment trial. Friday, Jaime Herrera Beutler, one of the House Republicans who voted in favor of impeaching Donald Trump, corroborated a heated phone call between the president and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy. Her statement was submitted as evidence in the trial. Herrera Beutler has been a prominent voice within the GOP against the former president. Joining us now to talk about how people in Washington state's 3rd District are reacting to their congresswoman's actions is Troy Brynelson from Oregon Public Broadcasting.
TROY BRYNELSON, BYLINE: Hi there.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So first, tell us a little bit about Herrera Beutler. Who is she, and what was her stance on Trump before all of this?
BRYNELSON: Yeah so Jaime Herrera Beutler is a Republican from the rural community of Battle Ground, Wash. She was first elected in 2010 and has been a consistent force in this district. She regularly wins her races by double digits. But it was only recently that she ever embraced Trump. In 2016, she famously said she would write in Paul Ryan, saying she couldn't vote for Trump in good conscience. In 2020, however, she was more vocal about voting for Trump. Even after the January 6 insurrection, she was referring to Trump as her guy. But then it came time to vote for impeachment.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Right. And she became one of 10 Republican House members who voted for impeachment. And I'm wondering, were there any ramifications locally for that?
BRYNELSON: Yes, she faced some pretty swift rebuke here from the more conservative corners of the district. Here, Trump won six counties last fall, but those are largely rural, less populated counties. And he did very well there. But its most populous county, Clark County, is far more purple. It's the population center of the district. And Republican organizations here weren't pulling punches. The Clark County Republican women said they'd never vote for Herrera Beutler again. The head of the Clark County GOP said his phone was ringing nonstop with people feeling betrayed. If you talk to these groups, they say Trump continues to enjoy a ton of support here, and his supporters aren't going to forget.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I guess, you know, that brings us to right now because she, again, pit herself against her district's Trump supporters by tweeting a statement with details about Trump's behavior during the Capitol riot. She did this Friday night after both sides in the impeachment trials ended their presentations. I mean, how are her constituents responding to that?
BRYNELSON: Yeah, it's true that Trump supporters here are reacting quickly, but remember this is a swing district. In the months since, we've been hearing from more moderate Republicans who are coming to her defense. I talked with a prolific Republican donor here who regularly communicates with Herrera Beutler, and he said he's hearing from other donors across the country who want to make sure they contribute to her next campaign. The donor said that if Herrera Beutler's actions have so angered the base, they'll make sure she has a war chest.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, it's an interesting point, right? The division between the donor class and the base. But does that mean that she'll likely face a Republican in her primary? I mean, there are forces that might want that.
BRYNELSON: Yeah, it's possible. What's interesting here is in Washington state's primary system, it advances the top two candidates regardless of party. So it's possible two Republicans make it to the general election. Herrera Beutler could really be facing challenges from all sides, your usual Democrats and the Trump supporters who want to see her out of office. I talked with political science professor Mark Stephan here in Vancouver, Wash. And he thinks it's more likely Herrera Beutler picks up more Democrats and centrists than the Trump supporters she loses.
MARK STEPHAN: I expect there'll be at least one or two candidates who are very, very much supporters of kind of the Trump line of thought and really are fighting to get her just pushed out of office. But she'll get support from places that we wouldn't have expected of otherwise.
BRYNELSON: Still, Herrera Beutler doesn't face reelection until 2022. So it's going to be interesting to see if the Republican Party's relationship with Trump changes and how that might affect her.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Fascinating, indeed, to look at that one small corner of the country and the Republican Party. That's Oregon Public Broadcasting's Southwest Washington reporter, Troy Brynelson. Thank you so much.
BRYNELSON: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.