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On primary night, the Spokane County Democrats learn how to be happy again 

The last time a Democrat did so well in a WA-05 primary was in 1992 — way back when Lisa Brown first ran for office

click to enlarge Madeline Brown, Jessa Lewis's campaign manager, laughs in glee about the initial results. - DANIEL WALTERS PHOTO
  • Daniel Walters photo
  • Madeline Brown, Jessa Lewis's campaign manager, laughs in glee about the initial results.

There's a moment in any election night rally when the crowd gets antsy. They start paying less attention to the platitudes of the speaker. One by one, the audience members begin taking out their cell phones and begin hitting refresh-refresh-refresh.

It's approaching that moment on Tuesday night, Aug. 7, at the Carpenters Local 59 Union Hall, where a crowd of Democrats have gathered. There's a frisson of suspense and excitement and worry. This is a sea of blue, desperately hoping for signs of a wave.

It's been a rough two years for Spokane County Democrats. Trump's election was a gut punch. And this night is not the real thing. But it's a test. It's an experiment to show if all their hopes and optimism was all wishful thinking or something solid.

In any moment, results will start dropping, and then the night will go in one of two directions.

The first possibility: Their stomachs will drop. There will be chin-scratching and rationalizations and maybe some loud sighs. There won't necessarily be cries of anguish, but the initial excitement would start to slowly leak out of the room like a defective air mattress. They would trickle out one by one, leaving campaign signs behind like corpses on a battlefield.

Or... There would be cheers. There would be giddiness and shrieks and hands covering mouths with joy.

The crowd of Democrats starts murmuring. They start pointing at their phones, something almost like shock playing across their faces.

click to enlarge Former Spokane County Democrats chair Andrew Biviano and his wife, Amy Biviano, marvel at the results pouring in. - DANIEL WALTERS PHOTO
  • Daniel Walters photo
  • Former Spokane County Democrats chair Andrew Biviano and his wife, Amy Biviano, marvel at the results pouring in.

Andrew Biviano, former chair of the Spokane County Democrats, had led the party for a year in the wake of Trump's victory. He'd overseen the party's attempt to recover from the fallout from a campaign finance mess and an ongoing attorney general investigation.

“Lisa Brown — ” Biviano starts saying. He holds his phone out to show the bar graph on the Washington state election page.

“ — Lisa Brown is up!” his wife Amy yells. In the background, there are isolated whoops and cheers and shouts as the news spreads.

As Spokane County results drop, for a moment, Brown isn't just close to Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers — she's actually ahead.

It's temporary, of course. There are still rural counties left to go that will push McMorris Rodgers a few hundred votes ahead. And there are still votes to be counted in the next few days, Biviano acknowledges, that will probably benefit Republican candidates.

“It’s never broken our way after election night,” Biviano says. "The later vote goes Republican."

And yet Biviano's cautious words can't hide the feeling written on his face: glee. Simply being within four or five percentage points of McMorris Rodgers would have been a huge win.

“We have so much pent-up energy," he says.

If tonight had been a serious disappointment, it would have destroyed the party's enthusiasm and momentum, he notes. Volunteers would stop signing up. Donations would dry up.

"It would be like previous years," Biviano says.

But, so far, this year is not like previous years. Not by a long shot.

click to enlarge For a brief moment, the results initially showed Lisa Brown beating Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers. - DANIEL WALTERS PHOTO
  • Daniel Walters photo
  • For a brief moment, the results initially showed Lisa Brown beating Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers.

Jessa Lewis's campaign manager, Madeline Brown, is throwing her head back and laughing.

"Holy shi-i-i-t. Oh my god," Madeline says. She's still laughing. "Oh my god. I'm just so happy that everyone who I have worked, everyone who I have doorbelled with, everybody is kicking ass and I am just so happy and so excited."

The excitement has left her out of breath. Right now, Lewis is narrowly beating her opponent, state Rep. Jeff Holy, in the race for Republican Sen. Mike Baumgartner's open seat. Kay Murano, the candidate running against incumbent Washington state Republican Rep. Mike Volz, is winning too.

"Kay Murano knocked on like probably 6,000 doors on her own," she says. "Jessa probably knocked on 4,000."

Until this year, Lewis had little name recognition. But tonight, she's a rock star.

“Personally, I’m thrilled. As a Democrat I’m thrilled. This was better than I was expecting. 100 percent better than I was expecting."

“I wish that I could tell a mom and her daughter 10 years ago, that she would be standing in this room together, and it would be because of Democratic policies, and the social safety net that brought her here!” Lewis says.

Over a decade ago, she and her daughter were homeless, but now she's in striking distance of becoming the first Democrat to go to the Washington State Senate from the 6th District in eight years.

Lewis borrows the refrain of John Kerry's 2004 convention speech: Our country and our social safety net are under attack. But help is on the way.

"I can't tell the mom and her daughter 10 years ago," Lewis says. "But I can tell the man I talk to in Airway Heights whose job was shifted to Mexico, that help is on the way. I can tell that mom whose daughter is disabled and doesn't have access to care that she needs that help is on the way. And I can tell those kids who are riding the bus an hour one way to school, that we're actually going to invest in them, in their future, that help is on the way."

Spokane City Councilwoman Kate Burke is amped too.

“You know how crappy I felt on the last election?" Burke says. "I pretty much lost my heart."

Of course, she's referring to the election in 2016, where Trump dashed Democrats' dreams, marched through the Midwest and took the presidency. 

But tonight? Tonight feels like the opposite.

"This is the reverse reaction,” Burke says. 

And Jac Archer, the vice-chair of the Spokane Democrats, says that the results were much better than expected.

“Personally, I’m thrilled. As a Democrat I’m thrilled. This was better than I was expecting. 100 percent better than I'm expecting," Archer says. "I’m cautious by nature. As Democrats we’re trying to be prudent — we know where we live. We have a lot of hope and energy. And frankly it’s necessary.”

And then, any possibility of conversation is drowned out by the roar of applause: Lisa Brown is up to speak.

click to enlarge Lisa Brown shares a hug with Washington state Reps. Timm Ormsby and Marcus Recelli. - DANIEL WALTERS PHOTO
  • Daniel Walters photo
  • Lisa Brown shares a hug with Washington state Reps. Timm Ormsby and Marcus Recelli.

"It is time to change our Congress that is paralyzed by partisanship, strangled by special interests, and drowning in dark money," Brown tells the crowd. "This is a Congress that is not only not controlling the cost of health care, but letting the system falling apart to score political points."

It's a Congress, she argues, that instead of being financially responsible, is passing big tax cuts for rich executives, going deep into debt and then trying to tell the poor and the elderly that they need to tighten their belts.

"I think you know that seniors and families living with the high unemployment rates in northeast Washington are not the ones who need to tighten their belts," Brown says.

Brown's speech casts her as a bipartisan person who is going to work across the aisle, but not as someone willing to adopt many Republican policy positions to get there. Think of it more as the Sen. Patty Murray-brand of bipartisanship, rather than the Sen. Joe Manchin variety.

"The incumbent has had her time," Brown says. "But after 14 years, that time is up. She is good at delivering the talking points written in D.C. But not good in delivering the results that Eastern Washington families, students, farms, ranches, businesses and seniors and veterans deserve."

Her campaign spokesman, Jack Sorensen, a perpetual blitz of Sorkinesque walk-and-talk energy, hammers out a press release on his laptop off to the side, arguing that the "numbers confirm what district polls and national political commentators have said for months — that McMorris Rodgers is in the toughest re-election campaign of her career."

Brown went all out to try to convince her voters to turn out in the primary: The GOP has slammed Brown for targeted mailers sent to specific voters that call those voters out by name and compare their record voting in the primary to their neighborhoods.

"We hope that the public records after the election will show that you took the time to vote this year," the mailer reads. It's a tactic that's been used nationwide, and it's been shown to be effective — but it also risks pissing a lot of people off, especially if it's seen as coming from a specific campaign.

But one thing Brown's campaign didn't do, to be clear, was to use deceptive ads to accuse her opponent of being soft on sex offenders. McMorris Rodgers spent weeks with that strategy — sacrificing her image as a congresswoman who cares about civility.

"By now, you've seen — of course you have — the negative ads," Brown says. "You've seen the labeling and the divisiveness. Will you help me, Eastern Washington and our country move beyond that?"

A shouted "YES!" dissolves into a more applause.
click to enlarge DANIEL WALTERS PHOTO
  • Daniel Walters photo
For a moment, it's worth marveling at what has been achieved already: 47 percent.

Though the total could change in the next few weeks, right now, a Democrat running in the primary for the 5th Congressional District has 47 percent in the primary.

The last time a Democrat has done so well in the 5th District primary was 1992. It was the same year a young single mom named Lisa Brown first ran for the state Legislature. Her son back then was an infant.

But now? Today that former infant is in his mid-20s, and Brown notes with a smile, "he is not a fan of either of the major political parties."

And his mom appears to be the first Spokane County Democrat to truly have a shot at winning a congressional seat in over two decades. By the next morning, Brown is only behind McMorris Rodgers by less than a half a percentage point. She's behind by only 525 votes.

Recent historical precedent, combined with polarization and the rural nature of much of the county, would seem to suggest that, for all intents and purposes, the 5th District is in the hands of Republicans.

But this year is different.

The press releases start pouring in: The Washington State Democratic Party calls the results statewide BFD — and they mean that in the Joe Biden sense.

Jack Pandol, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, doubled down on the Trump-style "Liberal Lisa Brown" moniker.

“Liberal Lisa Brown talks a good game, but her record shows she never met a tax hike she didn’t like," Pandol says. "When Eastern Washington realizes her far-left voting record is more in line with Seattle than Spokane, they’ll send her packing.”

McMorris Rodgers spokesman Jared Powell sends a press release offering reasons for optimism: The vote is likely to continue to trend Republican as it continues to be counted. 

And with about 48 percent of the vote, McMorris Rodgers actually did better than in 2016, he argued, where she got only 42 percent due to strong primary showings by independent Dave Wilson and Republican Tom Horne.

Local white supremacist James Allsup, meanwhile, sends out a press release that blames McMorris Rodgers' poor showing on, among other things, her decision to disavow white supremacist James Allsup.

National pundits and journalists weigh in as well. The Washington Post's Robert Costa raises the specter of Tom Foley, the Democratic speaker of the House who was ousted in the 1994 Republican Wave.

Last night, of course, was just a primary. In most races, for most candidates, it's basically the equivalent of a practice round. And yet it's a huge boost to Democrats and it's a huge warning to Republicans...



Real Clear Politics writer Sean Trende notes that, not only do Washington state primaries predict the general election, Democrats typically do better in the general than in the primary. Yes, this year may be different because of all the enthusiasm among Democrats,  Trende says, but it's still a very bad sign.

"As I’ve said before, 'this time is different' has a lousy track record," Trende says.

In at least one national ranking,  McMorris Rodgers' district was moved from a "Lean R" to a "toss-up." CNN's Harry Enten also said the race could be a toss-up and is "still stunned at how poorly the GOP is doing in Washington's top-two primary."

"
McMorris Rodgers to toss-up is absolutely wild," NBC News reporter Benjy Sarlin noted. "She was rated 'safe' as recently as January."

Last night, of course, was just a primary. In most races, for most candidates, it's basically the equivalent of a practice round. And yet it's a huge boost to Democrats and it's a huge warning to Republicans. Think of this primary as the Ghost-of-Elections-Yet-To-Come pointing its bony finger at a tombstone: Here lies the Spokane County Republican Party.

But the GOP can still change that future. McMorris Rodgers, who ignored requests for a debate in the primary, sent out an announcement this morning for at least three debates between herself and Lisa Brown. Brown has accepted.

A lot can happen in three months. There are negative campaign ads, spurious attacks, outlandish claims from both parties that haven't even been written yet.

But right now? Eastern Washington staying red is no longer inevitable.
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