Independents — sick of Trump, wary of Dems — rise up in eastern Washington
eith Goehner’s face brightens when he talks about pears.
“They say you plant pears for your heirs because it takes a while to get them into production,” Goehner said ahead of a recent candidates forum at the American Legion in Brewster, Washington.
“The Bartlett pear, some people like them green, some like them nice and yellow. The bosc is considered a dessert pear, and the d’Anjou is a winter pear... a really nice pear when it’s ripened.”
Goehner, a Republican with a strong jaw and Mitt Romney-esque gray hair, has grown pears in his orchard in Dryden for more than 40 years. During that time, he raised three children, taught public school and was a commissioner for Chelan County.
Now, he hopes to leverage his experience for a seat in the Washington state house representing the 12th District. He follows the Republican party line on most issues — he’s pro-life, supports the Second Amendment, supports the death penalty and believes in “personal accountability, smaller government, reduced spending and trying to keep government closer to the people.”
The 12th District is one of the most Republican districts in the state and went strongly for Trump in the 2016 election. Goehner’s county-level experience and party affiliation should set him up for clear sailing to Olympia.
But this is no normal race, and Goehner’s opponent is no normal opponent.
An Independent in the running
Goehner is running against Ann Diamond, an Independent from Mazama, in one of the most expensive and closely-watched state house races in the coming election. If she’s successful, she’ll the be first Independent elected to the legislature in state history and the only medical doctor in the state legislature currently.
Diamond has short, wavy blonde hair and bright blue eyes. She’s lived in Okanogan County with her partner and son for more than 20 years and opened her own medical clinic in Winthrop (now Confluence Health) in 2000. She has walked the line between Democrats and Republicans on issues like trade, abortion, gun control and public land access.
“Many people ask, which way do you lean? I say ask me an issue,” Diamond said. “In some ways I can be very conservative and in other ways perhaps more progressive and it just depends on the issue,” Diamond said.
Diamond believes elected officials should listen closely to their constituents and represent their interests in Olympia, not the interests of either party. She says that message is resonating. She was doorbelling in a more conservative part of the district the day after Justice Brett Kavanaugh testified before the U.S. Senate.
“When I said I was running as an Independent, I didn’t have to explain it to anyone,” Diamond said. “The words that I heard that night were ‘circus’ and the second most common was ‘embarrassing’ or ‘saddened’ and people felt strongly they wanted to have some other alternatives.”
Chris Vance, a former chairman of the Republican state party and co-founder of Washington Independents, said Diamond has a good chance of an upset victory (Goehner has had a comfortable lead in recent polls) in part because the political climate is shifting as more voters become disillusioned with the growing partisan divide in state and national politics.
“Ann Diamond is the pathfinder. There will be more. This movement is only growing,” Vance said.
He said it’s not surprising that people have a hard time believing that Diamond is truly an Independent.
“It’s part of this mindset that political people have where if you’re gonna be in this game you have to choose a side — Republican or Democrat — and we just reject that,” Vance said. “Ann Diamond has a right as a citizen to run for the Legislature and not join one of their two-street gangs.”
A national movement
Washington Independents is an affiliate of Unite America, an organization focused on getting more independent candidates into elected office at all levels, across the country. And some recent data show a growing appetite among voters for Independent candidates.
According to Gallup, more than 40 percent of Americans self-identify as politically independent. Between 2004 and 2018 the number of independent voters has grown at three times the rate of Republicans and twice the rate of Democrats, nationally. In Washington state, 75 percent of voters said they’d be open to supporting an independent candidate for state legislature, according to data from Unite America.
“That said, although a plurality of voters are independent, less than 1 percent of our state and federal legislators are independent,” said Nick Troiano, executive director of Unite America.
“We aim to close that gap and give independents a voice in government.”
Independents span the gambit, geographically and demographically. However, as the two major parties move toward their ideological extremes, Troiano said young people appear to be particularly drawn to the “people over party” approach that many independent candidates espouse.
Unite America is spending roughly $1 million backing 30 candidates across the country from state house to gubernatorial races and has spent more than $50,000 on Ann Diamond’s race, and plans to spend more.
“We think Ann can be the tip of the spear for a new movement in Washington and across the country of leaders who want to put people over party,” Troiano said.
Voters in the 12th District don’t have a Democrat on the ballot for Diamond/Goehner race, and that’s an advantage, according to Troiano.
“Ann starts off with a base of a lot of Democrats who don’t have a candidate, a lot of Independents who are glad to finally have an independent candidate on the ballot and a heck of a lot of Republicans who are dissatisfied with the direction of their own party,” Troiano said. “That can be a winning coalition.”
According to the Washington Public Disclosure Commission, Ann Diamond has raised more than double Keith Goehner in campaign contributions. More than 95 percent of her $120,000+ war chest comes from individuals.
In contrast, just over half of the contributions to Goehner’s campaign come from people. The rest is from businesses, including Premera Blue Cross, and Political Action Committees or PACs, including the Washington Food Industry PAC and several construction and builders PACs.
Diamond’s donors include several wealthy Seattleites with homes in the Methow Valley, including Tom and Sonya Campion, who are major Democratic donors at the national level.
Chris Vance said that is to be expected in a race like this, where liberals are eager to back the less conservative of the two candidates, even if she is not a Democrat.
“If Ann Diamond were running in a Democratic-leaning district against a Democrat, you would probably see a lot of conservatives writing her checks because they’re trying to prevent the Democrat from winning,” Vance said. “Ann Diamond chose to run in this district because it’s her home and it just so happens it’s a Republican-leaning district.”
'Independent' as a way of life
Ron and Sandy Morris came to grasp the true meaning of being independent when the Carlton Complex fire burned right up to the edge of their small ranch in the eastern Cascades outside of Malott.
The night the fire hit, the couple slept in their truck, parked in the middle of their field, around which they’d dug a fire break. They put their horses in their horse trailer to keep the burning embers from hitting them. Temperatures were in the triple digits and the wind howled, Sandy Morris recalled, and they could hear their neighbors propane tanks exploding in the distance as the fire moved towards them.
“The worst part was we knew we were as safe as you could get but we didn’t know how many of our neighbors were blowing up with their tanks,” Sandy Morris said. “You had no way of knowing because power went out. We got an email from a neighbor at 9:15 p.m. saying the fire is coming and then at 9:17 the power went out, everything was gone.”
The couple said emergency responders didn’t come to their aid.
“They weren’t even here to save property. It changed our whole way of thinking,” said Sandy Morris. “So we changed everything. Ron plowed roads all the way around our 20 acres and then behind the house and out in the field and we gutted the field so that’s our safety zone.”
“You’ve got to be able to do it yourself. You have to be independent to live here,” Ron Morris added.
The Morris’s independence extends to their politics. They have voted for both Democrats and Republicans in the past — Ron Morris gave money to Reagan and voted for Bill Clinton, as did Sandy. The couple voted for Trump in 2016. Sandy Morris said she doesn’t talk about it much with her friends.
“My thinking is it wasn’t working and he [Trump] thinks more independent,” Sandy Morris said.
Ron Morris said it was because he wanted change and he was tired of the entrenched two-party system.
“The parties are more interested in the success of the party than they are of their politics and that’s bad,” he said.
Sandy Morris is not sure if she’ll vote for Trump again in 2020 — she’s pro-choice and not “into organized religion”.
“I’m an independent right down the line,” Sandy Morris said. “I always voted the candidate, not the party, but I was on the liberal side. And now, no you gotta prove to me what you’re gonna do with our dollars because you’ve made promises and it doesn’t happen.”
The Morrises are big fans of Ann Diamond and have traveled to hear her speak at two candidate forums. They both expressed some concern that she does not support the Second Amendment aggressively enough, but they appreciate that she’s an independent thinker who won’t tow either party line.
If Diamond can appeal to independent voters like the Morrises — as well as Democrats and some disillusioned Republicans — she may have a chance at an upset victory in the 12th district.