In October, campaigns for the 8th Congressional District typically hurtle toward election day as candidates spend their last weeks on the trail racing across counties to shake hands, knock on doors, and persuade constituents to vote for them.
But this year is different, said Democratic Rep. Kim Schrier, who is running for a second term this year against Republican challenger Jesse Jensen.
Jensen agrees. He said this year, “democracy smells like hand sanitizer” but he is still just as determined as his incumbent opponent to win, despite also facing an unusually isolated electorate because of COVID-19.
Out of precaution for the virus’s spread, longtime Sammamish resident Schrier is working from home. Jensen, of Bonney Lake, works from a relatively emptied out office. Jensen strives to stay as engaged as possible with voters through phone calls and doorbelling efforts, while Schrier said she is mainly focusing on digital voter outreach, including virtual town halls.
Schrier, a former pediatrician, said she is glad to have spent the past two years working hard for the 8th District in Congress. She now views these final days as a matter of simply informing community members of how she has done that, “almost like a victory lap,” she said.
Her experience as a healthcare professional and congresswoman, in addition to positive feedback prior to and on the trail, make her uniquely qualified to continue in the position now, she said.
Jensen counters that his experience on the campaign reflect a different story, pointing to criticisms of Schrier he has encountered when speaking with urban and rural voters who believe, like him, that she is now out of touch with the district.
Although Schrier’s campaign often points, proudly, to the 10,000 miles she has driven across the district to attend town halls, some voters say she is notably absent otherwise, said Jensen, who has worked in management positions at Amazon and Microsoft in addition to serving as a former Army captain.
“I’m talking to folks in Pierce County who laugh at that number and say, ‘I drive 40,000 miles a year just commuting to work,’” Jensen said. “‘Who is this congresswoman that thinks she’s gonna impress me with a 10,000 mile number?’”
Cognitive dissonance between Congress and constituents was what first drew Jensen to the race, he said. Ultimately, he is convinced that voters in 2020 are looking for change.
“I don’t think they’re looking for change in this district,” she said. “I think they’re looking for more of the same…Somebody who is looking to serve very diverse needs in this district and see things in shades of gray, not black and white.”
Schrier received 43.3% of the vote in the August primary, while Jensen received 20%. But Schrier’s win marked a low point among Washington’s other congressional incumbents, an indicator Republicans like Jensen have pinpointed as a sign of a “potential upset,” the Seattle Times reported. Washington Democrats have remained confident because of Jensen’s lower campaign fundraising and the impact of the broader presidential race between Joe Biden and Donald Trump, according to the Seattle Times.
Three race rating sources (Cook Political Report, Inside Elections, Sabato’s Crystal Ball) have also predicted 8th District outcomes in favor of the Democratic Party as recently as Oct. 13. No matter the victor, Schrier and Jensen agreed that this will be a tight race, as the purple 8th District historically seesaws between the two parties.
Schrier came in second in the 2018 primary with 18.7% of the vote, but eventually won that year’s general election over Republican Dino Rossi with 52.4% of the vote. Republican incumbent Dave Reichart, who has now endorsed Jensen’s candidacy, won the 2014 and 2016 primary and general elections with wide margins.
Since Schrier did not win a majority of the vote in the August primary election, Jensen said he is confident in his ability to garner a coalition of voters to help him reclaim the seat for Republicans.
“This is a sleeper race and I think a lot of people are going to wake up on Nov. 4th and be shocked with the outcomes of this election in the 8th Congressional District,” Jensen said.
He is also vocally critical of Schrier, alleging that the congresswoman strictly aligns her votes with the progressive wing of the Democratic Party and works in lockstep with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Jensen takes issue with Schrier’s support of a state income tax and what he views as her faltering support for law enforcement officers who live in or serve 8th District communities.
Schrier refuted Jensen’s characterization of her tenure in Congress. She emphasized that she does not support defunding the police. Schrier said she is concerned about Jensen’s support for Trump, a president who she believes consistently puts his own interests above the now-exhausted American public’s interests.
Overall, the escalating bipartisan divide currently taking place in American politics is counter-productive though, Schrier said, reiterating her desire for politicians and constituents to return to normalcy and civility by meeting each other in the middle of conflicts.
“We all just have to take a deep breath and come back to our commonality, our humanity, the fact that we all want to live in Sammamish,” she said. “We want a safe, good place for our children to grow up. We have a whole lot more in common than what divides us. And when the focus is on what divides us, I think it’s very destructive to a society.”
Jensen also expressed eagerness to be bipartisan if elected, and said current issues such as police reform showed the strong necessity for bipartisan reform in Congress. Partisanship was never a question during his time in the military, and Jensen said he intends to fulfill his role with the same diligence in Washington D.C.
“Congress has approval ratings in the single high digits-low teens because people see it as an institution where things go to die and not where things go to get done,” he said. “I’m going to fight for the men, women and children in the 8th Congressional District just as hard as I did in the military.”
Despite their differences, Schrier and Jensen were united in their desire to find a way to mitigate the coronavirus pandemic’s impact on the 8th District.
“If there’s one thing that all sides of the political spectrum can agree on, it’s that they want 2020 to be over,” Jensen said.