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Conspiracy theories abound in Republican battle to retake Washington’s 8th Congressional District

caption: Kim Schrier speaks to a large crowd on Tuesday, November 6, 2018, at the Hilton in Bellevue.
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Kim Schrier speaks to a large crowd on Tuesday, November 6, 2018, at the Hilton in Bellevue.
KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Republicans are targeting Washington’s 8th Congressional District this year as a key part of their plan to retake Congress.

But to avoid turning off moderate and independent voters, the three GOP candidates will need to navigate a minefield of conspiracy theories.

The 8th sprawls from bedroom communities near Seattle like Sammamish, across the Cascade mountains to Chelan, and through Ellensburg where farms and ranches still dot the landscape.

Political consultant Ben Anderstone said with polls showing a Republican surge this year, incumbent Democrat Kim Schrier may be in trouble.

This district is basically tailor-made to be tough to hold onto during a swing year, and with the polling we’re seeing right now, it’s going to be a challenge for Schrier,” he said.

The eastern portion of Schrier’s district, over the Cascades, always tends to vote Republican. But even on the west side of the mountains, there are pockets of strong support for Republican candidates and ideas.

Outside the public library in Bonney Lake, which is 20 minutes east of Tacoma, conservative voter Melissa Girges stops to chat. She believes Trump's false assertions about the 2020 election.

“Oh, I think it was stolen — there was a lot of fraudulent things going on,” she said.

But like many voters who stop to chat, her number one issue is the pandemic.

“The unvaccinated are being discriminated against,” she said.

Political consultant Anderstone describes Bonney Lake as a mostly white, relatively working-class town. Only around 25% of residents have college degrees. Voters here backed Donald Trump over Joe Biden by nine percentage points in 2020.

That makes it fertile ground for the three Republican candidates in the race, including Bonney Lake resident and former Army Ranger Jesse Jensen, who faced Kim Schrier in the 2020 general election.

Recently, in a bid for some of those Republican voters, Jensen posted a baseless rumor about the pandemic on his Youtube channel.

“They can detain you or your family for anything regarding the Covid vaccine. They can go in and they can say your schoolchild didn't get a shot — you and your entire family is a threat and we're going to detain you,” he said.

According to the Washington State Board of Health of Health, that rumor is entirely false.

caption: Republican Jesse Jensen (left) is running to represent Washington State's 8th Congressional District.
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Republican Jesse Jensen (left) is running to represent Washington State's 8th Congressional District.
Jesse Jensen for Congress

Jensen canceled his interview with KUOW because he said his family got Covid.

Up the road 20 miles from Bonney Lake is Covington, where Republican voter Neil Schroeder shares Jensen’s enthusiasm for vaccine conspiracy theories.

“All the absolute lies about Covid and the killer vaccines, it's an absolute disgrace. I agree with the 12 or 16 thousand doctors worldwide who say this is a crime against humanity,” Schroeder said.

There is no evidence to support that point of view.

Schroeder said he'll probably vote for the most conservative candidate in the race.

But such strong support for far right views and candidates is out of step in Covington, which went for Biden over Trump by around 16 percentage points.

Where do swing voters fit in?

Swing voter Anthony Havener, who is also outside the library, said he voted for Trump in 2016 but now regrets it. Havener calls Trump’s stolen election claims "nonsense," and said he wishes the government had been more proactive in cracking down during the pandemic.

“The fact that so many people are allowed to be unvaccinated and out and about without taking simple precautions is ridiculous,” Havener said.

Self-described “moderate Republican” Tarlochan Gill said he voted for Trump, and likes the ex-President’s immigration policies.

“He wants to consider the people already in America to get more jobs rather than calling more people from abroad,” he said.

But Gill is not a conspiracy theorist. He said the election was not stolen, and he also prefers Biden to Trump in his response to the pandemic because he encourages mask-wearing.

Covington is also home to another Republican candidate in the race: King County Councilmember Reagan Dunn. His mom Jennifer Dunn represented the 8th for more than a decade.

Republican Dave Reichert was the 8th District representative after that, stepping down before the 2018 election when Democrat Kim Schrier flipped the seat.

To win it back for his mom and his party this year, Dunn needs to appeal to moderates and independents without alienating conservative conspiracy theorists in the Republican party, who he will need to get through the primary.

That's a political tightrope Dunn seems ready to walk.

For instance, Dunn's spokesperson told KUOW that Dunn doesn't buy the vaccine rumors that fellow Republican and opponent Jesse Jensen is spreading.

“Of course Reagan would oppose allowing law enforcement officials to detain unvaccinated people if such a plan were in the works," campaign manager Carson Coates wrote in an email. "But he is unaware of any current state proposal to do anything like that. Reagan takes his responsibility to tell the truth to his constituents extremely seriously.”

But Dunn also said he’s against Covid mandates.

“I think people who want to wear a mask should wear a mask," he said. "If people don't want to get vaccinated, that's on them."

caption: Reagan Dunn is running for Washington's 8th Congressional District
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Reagan Dunn is running for Washington's 8th Congressional District
Dunn campaign

Another candidate in this race is Matt Larkin, who said he sees himself “as being the most conservative one in the race.” He actually lives North of the district in Woodinville, but is eligible to run under Washington law.

Larkin is a businessman and former Pierce County deputy prosecutor who ran for State Attorney General in 2020. He lost that race to Democrat Bob Ferguson by around 13 percentage points.

On the pandemic, Larkin is opposed to mandates. He also said he mostly blames President Joe Biden for vaccine hesitancy, as opposed to the spread of medical misinformation.

“He alienated people by saying things like, 'It's a pandemic of the unvaccinated,'” Larkin said.

The relatively diverse King County suburb of Sammamish is where incumbent Democrat Kim Schrier lives. Biden won this city by 44 percentage points.

Anderstone, the political consultant, pointed out that a high percentage of Sammamish residents have college degrees, and that it's more diverse than other parts of the 8th. Just 55% of the voting age population is white.

Schrier is running on her record, and as a doctor she's more than happy to talk about her votes in congress on Covid.

“There's nobody better than a pediatrician who has been vaccinating children for her entire working life to be the person front and center when we are dealing with a global pandemic, and how to learn to live with coronavirus,” she said.

But this year, with state and national polls showing slipping support for Democrats on issues ranging from inflation to the spike in crime, Anderstone believes Schrier could have a hard time keeping the seat.

If she makes it through the top two August primary as many expect, Schrier's fate will likely depend on how conspiracy-minded her opponent is.

Whoever gets through, Washington's 8th District race is expected to be one of the more expensive ones in the nation for 2022.

In the money race so far, Reagan Dunn’s FEC filing is out, showing nearly $350,000 raised and little spent. Matt Larkin has raised a bit more overall, but he’s also spent more than $100,000. Jesse Jensen is spending too, but still has a bit more in hand than Dunn.

Incumbent Kim Schrier has raised over $4 million.

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