Washington 5th District Race Draws Criticism For McMorris Rodgers Ads

The campaign of Cathy McMorris Rodgers sent this and similar ads to Washington 5th Congressional District voters ahead of the Aug. 7, 2018 primary.
The campaign of Cathy McMorris Rodgers sent this and similar ads to Washington 5th Congressional District voters ahead of the Aug. 7, 2018 primary.

The race for U.S. House in eastern Washington has taken a negative turn.

Despite criticism, 5th District Republican Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers isn’t backing down on a controversial ad campaign attacking her Democratic opponent, Lisa Brown, using information proven to be misleading and false.

In the mailed and television ads, McMorris Rodgers calls Brown dangerously liberal and alleges she voted against a bill when Brown was in the state legislature that would have prohibited sex offenders from living within a quarter mile of a school.

Brown did vote against the initial bill, saying it was poorly written and not tough enough. She later voted for another bill in 2005 that banned sex offenders from schools, child care centers and playgrounds.

Travis Ridout, a political scientist at Washington State University, told the Associated Press that running negative ads so early makes some sense for McMorris Rodgers.

Cathy McMorris Rodgers campaign mailer, associating Brown with a bill and incorrectly attributing info on her to The Columbian newspaper.

Cathy McMorris Rodgers campaign mailer. Courtesy of The Inlander

“If McMorris Rodgers does really well in the primary, then donor and voter enthusiasm for Brown may wane,” Ridout told the AP. “But if Brown does well, McMorris Rodgers will look extremely vulnerable.”

One ad includes a supposed excerpt from an article in the Columbian newspaper saying Brown voted to release sex offenders from supervision.

The accompanying quote is misattributed to Brown, as reporter Daniel Walters with Spokane’s Inlander newspaper has shown.

From The Inlander: 

“Here’s the thing: The line “Brown voted to release from supervision predators like,” does not actually appear in the Columbian article. Brown’s name doesn’t appear in the Columbian article at all.

 “The article does outline the concerns of a state corrections officer that early versions of Senate Bill 5891 would have resulted in the release of criminals like Fisher from community supervision — essentially Washington’s version of probation and parole.”

The words are paraphrased from concerns raised by a state corrections officer during earlier drafts of the bill.  

The Columbian article McMorris Rodgers’ campaign used never actually mentions Brown’s name.

According to the Associated Press: 

“Brown said the McMorris Rodgers ad was misleading and showed that the incumbent is worried. The ad claimed Brown voted against a bill that would have given the state authority to prohibit some convicted sex offenders from living within a quarter mile of a school. Brown said she voted against the bill because she did not think it was tough enough, saying it should have included preschools and child care centers.

 “They ran the same attacks against me in 1996 when I was running for the (state) Senate,” Brown told the AP. “I’m amazed they would resurrect that… Negative ads so soon show a real concern about what the primary is going to look like.”

McMorris Rodgers’ campaign has pushed back on criticism and defended the ads.

“This is Lisa’s record and she needs to defend it,” McMorris Rodgers’ spokesman Jared Powell told the AP.

Several hundred psychologists and others in the mental health field have signed an open letter to McMorris Rodgers, urging her to stop the ads and apologize.

McMorris Rodgers will hold several public and private events throughout eastern Washington July 30 through August 3, including town hall meetings in Republic and her hometown of Kettle Falls.

She is not scheduled to host any public town halls in Spokane – the district’s largest city. But she will host a private fundraiser with fellow Republican Rep. Devin Nunes, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, on Monday, July 30 at the Spokane Club


McMorris Rodgers has two primary challengers from within her own party, who appear to have little chance of making a dent in her path to the general election. Brown is the only Democrat in the race. Under Washington’s primary system, the top two vote-getters advance to November, regardless of their party.

The 5th District hugs the Idaho border and is dominated by Spokane, the state’s second-largest city. The district has been reliably Republican since George Nethercutt’s shocking defeat of Democratic House Speaker Tom Foley in 1994. Candidate Donald Trump easily beat Hillary Clinton here in 2016, 52 percent to 39 percent.

McMorris Rodgers ranks fourth in House leadership and is often seen at the side of Speaker Paul Ryan. She hopes her heavy slate of television ads prevents a Foley-style loss.

“I don’t take anything for granted,” she said. “It has been my desire to make sure the people of eastern Washington know about my record of results.”

McMorris Rodgers has mostly coasted to re-election in her seven previous congressional campaigns, often with 60 percent of the vote. But early polls in this race put Brown, who spent 20 years as a state legislator, within striking distance.

The race is expensive. As of June 30, McMorris Rodgers had raised $3.7 million and had $1.7 million in cash on hand. Brown raised $2.1 million and had just over $1 million in the bank.

That buys a lot of television advertising in the relatively cheap Spokane market.

McMorris Rodgers is also highlighting her work in Congress, noting five bills she sponsored in the past year have been signed into law.

“All have a direct impact on the hard-working people of eastern Washington,” she said, covering issues like health care, healthy forests and protecting Snake River dams from being breached.

McMorris Rodgers has broken with President Trump on foreign trade issues, in part because her district is a big exporter of farm products.

“I have been outspoken in my opposition to across-the-board tariffs,” she said. “I have been urging the administration and the president to lead with the farmers in mind.”

McMorris Rodgers said serving in House leadership is a positive for her constituents.

“I have a seat at the table when decisions are being made,” she said. “That shows in my record of results.”

She said Brown “has consistently voted to raise taxes,” and made the point in television ads denouncing “Liberal Lisa” and calling her Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi’s candidate for Congress. She also has criticized Brown’s past backing of a state income tax and a single payer health care system.

Brown does not apologize for supporting the idea of a state income tax, which she contends would be more progressive than the state’s reliance on a high sales tax for money.

Brown has highlighted her efforts as the former chancellor of Washington State University-Spokane to establish a new medical school. McMorris Rodgers contends that Brown is taking too much credit for the medical school.

For her part, Brown contends that McMorris Rodgers’ GOP leadership role prevents her from pursuing the best interests of her constituents.

“Does the party always come first for her?” Brown said, adding that voters want someone who will stand up to Trump.

“Congress is broken,” Brown said. “After 14 years, she is part of the dysfunction.”

Reporting by NWPB’s Zach Garner in Pullman and the AP’s Nicholas K. Geranios in Spokane.

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