It was a nightmare that, however briefly, left congressional Republicans shaken and wide awake. Indeed, like a nightmare, the riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, was a stream of images both horrifying and absurd: Chants of "1776" interspersed with "Hang Mike Pence." An American flag wielded as a billy club. A guy in a horned, fur headdress screaming "freedom" after breaking into the Senate chamber. One cop beaten with a fire extinguisher. Another dragged down the steps and shocked with his own taser. A flashbang explosion turning a cloud of tear gas an eerie yellow.
This wasn't like other riots. This wasn't just an attack on a governmental building, it was an assault upon a peaceful transition of power itself. In the immediate aftermath, it sparked clear-eyed condemnation from many, though not all, Republicans.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy declared "the president bears responsibility for Wednesday's attack on Congress by mob rioters," and privately said that he planned to tell the president who just lost the election that he should resign early. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell argued that "the mob was fed lies" and was "provoked by the president."
Cathy McMorris Rodgers, Eastern Washington's representative, offered her own rebuke.
"President Trump showed a complete lack of leadership in the face of an attack on the U.S. government," she said at the time in a statement, acknowledging that "people on the right have excused and defended President Trump, including me," which meant "turning a blind eye to arrogant, prideful and bullying behavior."
That approach didn't last. In the same way a bad dream dissipates over breakfast, McMorris Rodgers and other Republicans quickly returned to their routine of playing defense for Trump: McCarthy, McMorris Rodgers and McConnell all opposed Trump's impeachment.
In the year and a half since, McMorris Rodgers has hammered Biden on inflation, gas prices and Afghanistan. She's accused "Big Tech of turning a 'blind eye'" to the harm they've caused the youth, and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee of turning a "blind eye" toward polluters in the Puget Sound.
But in a February 2021 interview with KREM, McMorris Rodgers was already backing off her criticisms by arguing that Trump didn't explicitly tell the crowd to "storm the Capitol." She ducked the Inlander's repeated interview attempts on the topic of Jan 6. last year. She voted against impeachment, and she voted against forming the congressional committee to investigate the attack on the Capitol. Next month's election is the first time voters have a chance to weigh in on how their leaders handled the attack. McMorris Rodgers has continued to try to walk the line between the party's far right and its remaining, dwindling moderates — but as Trump continues to assert his role as the leader of the Republicans, that becomes increasingly difficult, if not impossible.
The Inlander requested an interview with McMorris Rodgers with a full week to spare — but were told she was only available three days after our deadline, and then only for 15 minutes. By contrast, her opponent, Natasha Hill, talked with us for an hour and a half.
"Even after everything we've seen come out of this investigation, she didn't stand up and do the right thing," Hill says of McMorris Rodgers. "Because she knows if she did, she'd get ousted from her own party."
Six weeks ago, Spokane photographer Don Hamilton mounted a billboard on the top of his Honda CRV that reads BigLieCathy.Com. Every morning, he drives it somewhere prominent, parks it, and then bikes home.
It's one thing to disagree with McMorris Rodgers over, say, ecological policy and the Snake River dams, he says. But the "Big Lie" — the name some have used to describe Trump's sweeping and false claim that Biden stole the election — is different.
"She is undermining our faith in our elections," Hamilton says. "I fear that the republic is about to fall. ... I may sound hysterical, but this is as serious as a heart attack."
On this topic, McMorris Rodgers again attempted to find a line to walk.
"I don't believe the 'Big Lie' as such," McMorris Rodgers said at the Spokane Convention Center during her annual town hall meeting in August. Yet she immediately added a caveat, saying "there were significant irregularities in the election."
McMorris Rodgers pointed to complaints about examples of election officials or governors requiring states to transition to vote-by-mail during the COVID pandemic — yet there hasn't been any evidence that there was any meaningful amount of election fraud in those states. Then she touted her own efforts to pass "election integrity" legislation that would "require ID to ensure only citizens are voting in elections."
"We must have election integrity, in order to have the peaceful transfer of power," she said.
Dave Weigel, a longtime national political reporter who left the Washington Post for journalism startup Semafor last month, said in a phone interview that most congressional Republicans have tried to strike a similarly murky compromise on their approach to the Capitol riot last year: Jan. 6 was a bad thing, but further investigation is unfair.
Weigel says the very few congressional Republicans who have continued to speak out forcefully against Trump after Jan. 6 have been "pretty contemptuous" of the Republicans who have refused to back them up. "It's like you look back expecting an army behind you and you have no one at all," Weigel says of those Republicans who've spoken out.
Even McMorris Rodgers' greatest critics acknowledge the political wind she's facing.
"Want to get reelected?" Hamilton says. "She's doing it brilliantly. Remain wallpaper. Remain invisible. Don't stick your neck out on anything. 'Aw shucks.' It is not a profile in courage."
McMorris Rodgers could have been like her one-time protege, Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, a Vancouver-area Republican who voted to impeach. During this year's primary, Herrera Beutler was defeated narrowly by Joe Kent, a far-right radical who once said he didn't find anything wrong with "a white people special interest group."
"Want to get reelected? ... Remain wallpaper. Remain invisible. Don't stick your neck out on anything. ... It is not a profile in courage."
Or McMorris Rodgers could have gone even further, following the route of Rep. Liz Cheney. In 2018, Cheney replaced McMorris Rodgers as the House Republican conference chair, promising to be more ambitious and aggressive in championing Republican positions.
But Cheney's frequent condemnation of Trump after Jan. 6, and her role on the Democrat-dominated Jan. 6 Committee, got her quickly booted as conference chair. She lost her re-election bid this year by nearly 40 percentage points, the worst showing for a House incumbent in decades. Considering her father was vice president under George W. Bush, her loss underscores the power Trump has over the GOP.
"I think it's a sad day in America, when honest Republicans are turned out for being honest," Hamilton says.
But there was a third possibility. McMorris Rodgers could have been like Rep. Dan Newhouse, the Republican congressman in the district directly to McMorris Rodgers' west who voted for impeachment. Despite being in an even more conservative district — one that voted for Trump by 17 percentage points in 2020 — Newhouse survived. He was lucky enough to draw a slew of Republican challengers. They all split the vote, and Newhouse squeaked by.
But Spokane County Republican Party state committee member Beva Miles, who has had a long history of standing up to more radical elements of the local party, says representatives always face a tension: "Do they vote their conscience or vote according to what their constituents want?"
Newhouse voting against his district, Miles argues, was the wrong decision.
By contrast, she heaps praise upon McMorris Rodgers' choice to try to keep her head down on this issue of Trump.
"She's not one to beat her chest or be out in public all the time," Miles says. "If she wants to get anything done, she has to stay out of it. Getting into a spitfight when [Trump's] not even on the ballot, it would be a total waste of time and effort."
Hill, McMorris Rodgers' opponent this year, argues that the congresswoman doesn't accurately represent her constituents at all.
"Cathy is just completely out of touch at this point," Hill says. "Because she's out of touch, it's allowed her to easily fall in line with more of the far-right Republican extremism."
It's easy to tally up the contrasts.
McMorris Rodgers celebrated the defeat of Roe v. Wade as a victory for the "dignity and sanctity of every human life." Hill calls for codifying Roe v. Wade's standard of allowing abortion until the fetus can survive outside the womb into federal law.
McMorris Rodgers has condemned Biden's attempt to forgive $10,000 of most students' loans, while Hill is critical of Biden for not forgiving even more.
McMorris Rodgers decries legislation that gives preference to organized labor. Hill wants to pass a bill mandating federal and state governments to only contract with unions.
And in a campaign mailer sent out last week, McMorris Rodgers sought to establish another contrast: She supports law enforcement. Hill, during the 2020 demonstrations for racial justice, called for defunding the police. Hill says that's not part of her official platform, though she supports investing more money in mental health services instead of law enforcement.
But as Hill notes, when it comes to the nation's top law enforcement agency, the FBI, McMorris Rodgers suddenly becomes a lot more skeptical. In her August town hall, she said the raid on Donald Trump's Florida mansion and club, Mar-a-Lago, raises questions about powers the FBI "may use to trample your constitutional rights as an American citizen."
Hill pounces on the irony.
"God forbid, you stand up [against] disproportionate violence against Black Americans by police," Hill says. "But gosh, when our FBI goes after somebody for espionage, for keeping documents?"
Hill points to the absurdity of Trump in a recent Fox News interview claiming he could declassify things with his mind, and suggests we'll never hear McMorris Rodgers' thoughts on Trump's absurdities.
"Any questions regarding Trump, [McMorris Rodgers] always flips that back on what Biden's doing," Hill says.
A number of congressional Republicans, Weigel says, still have this odd kind of denial about Trump, that "maybe if you just behind-the-scenes wish him away, he'll go away."
But Miles, who watched a whole far-right slate of local Republican precinct committee officers get elected recently, says nothing suggests that Trump is confined to the party's past.
"Half of the Republican party is insistent that Trump will be the next president," Miles says.
"There's no post-Trump world." ♦
This story has been corrected to reflect that Newhouse's district is to the west of McMorris Rodgers' district and that he had more than two Republican challengers.