This week, Seattle pollster Stuart Elway released a new survey that shows Republican Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers holds a six-point lead over Democrat Lisa Brown in Washington’s Fifth District Congressional race.
“Basically we wanted to take a look at this race for the Fifth Congressional District at the beginning. There’s a long time to the election but where are the candidates starting out?” Elway said.
Among the 400 or so people surveyed, McMorris Rodgers was favored by 44%, compared to 38% for Brown. Three percent chose another candidate and 16% were undecided.
“The striking thing is how close it is, given that McMorris Rodgers has been there for awhile and has won rather handily in each of her previous elections. So to have Lisa Brown this close this early is not a familiar position," Elway said.
The poll was commissioned by five media organizations, including Spokane Public Radio. The others are the Spokesman-Review, the Lewiston Tribune, the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin and KHQ-TV.
Let’s dig into a few specifics. The poll shows an equal percentage of voters approve of McMorris Rodgers’ job rating as disapprove, 45%-45%. Elway says the demographic numbers show where the differences are.
“Men like McMorris Rodgers by a 23-point margin and women like Brown, prefer Brown, by an eight-point margin. So there’s quite a gender gap here. To a large degree, that reflects what’s going on, here and nationally, in party identification," Elway said.
McMorris Rodgers has the support of people who self-identify as Republican, 80% to six. She wins over independent voters, 40% to 32. She has a healthy lead among people with a high school education or some college. She has a slight lead, three points, among people who are college graduates. Brown, a college professor by vocation, wins among those with graduate degrees. Brown also was the pick of 85% of people who identify as Democrats.
The poll also asked how people view President Trump’s job performance. It shows 45% approve and 50% don’t.
The poll also asked about two specific issues, the first dealing with guns.
“The question was ‘do you favor establishing an age limit of 21 for the purchase of semi-automatic rifles?’ And 62% of our likely voters said they supported such an age limit, which may be somewhat surprising given the district," Elway said. "There’s a sense, at least nationally, that this issue is shifting a bit largely as a result of the activity of these high school kids out of Florida, mobilizing public opinion.”
The second question asked whether people support Congress continuing efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, Obamacare.
“And it was split right down the middle. Forty-seven percent said yes, continue to try to repeal it. Forty-seven percent said no,” Elway said.
Those who favored repeal overwhelmingly identified as Republican and vice versa.
We talked with several respondents and asked them to explain their answers.
Pat Clark of Spokane is a Republican who supports President Trump and Cathy McMorris Rodgers.
“I like all that she’s trying to do and she works very hard at trying to put good values and what’s best for the American people, in my opinion,” Clark said.
Clark favors the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, but in a bit of a twist, she also supports a higher age limit for buying automatic rifles.
“If somebody wants a gun, they’re going to get a gun from their folks or wherever, but I think it wouldn’t hurt to have a higher age before they get one so they aren’t in the schools at the time. They might get a little more maturity by the time they have it,” she said.
Were her views influenced by some of the school shootings that have happened around the country in the last year or so?
“Yes, I think so because I’m definitely not for gun control,” Clark said.
On the other end of the political spectrum is Deidre Allen from Greenbluff, who identifies as a Democrat. She has strong views about President Trump. She views him as unfit to serve in the office. She’s also not a supporter of McMorris Rodgers. She says the congresswoman is rarely available to meet with constituents.
“I was also very disappointed in her stand on guns in the schools. I don’t think arming teachers is the answer and she’s still tied into the NRA so she thinks gun ownership is more important than the lives of our children and I just think that’s wrong,” Allen said.
Allen opposes efforts to overturn ACA.
“It’s a travesty that the cost of just routine doctors’ visits is out of the reach of most people and I don’t think that in a country as prosperous and as developed as ours that that should be the case,” she said.
David Thompson of Chattaroy identifies as a Republican. He also worries about high medical costs, especially those that he’s been paying. But he views ACA as partially responsible for those and so, he supports its repeal.
“My bookkeeper goes, ‘You paid 18-thousand dollars. You’re still showing another 18-thousand in medical bills. What’s your insurance doing for you.’ I said not much,” Thompson said.
Thompson would vote for Cathy McMorris Rodgers, especially because he likes her strong support of Second Amendment issues.
“I’ve had guns since I was knee high. I grew up with rifles. In Cub Scouts we’d go out shooting .22s," he said. "I used to have tons of gear, bird rifles and I had a pistol and went into the Coast Guard and became an expert shot. After I got out of the Coast Guard, I got an AR and I’ve loved it ever since.”
Kurt Langland of Deer Park identifies as an independent.
Langland supports raising the age for buying semi-automatic weapons and he likes the way New Zealand handles gun ownership.
“You go down to the police station. They give you a form. You fill out that form. They give you a background check. Then they give that form to you and you have to take it to a gun club. And at the gun club, you go through a gun safety program," Langland said.
"And after you’ve gone through the gun safety program successfully, then you take it back to the police station. A retired police officer then goes to your home and makes certain that you have two locked facilities, one for the weapon, one for ammunition. Now that seems sensible. They don’t mind hunters, they don’t mind sports shooters, but they’re more logical,” he said.
Like Deidre Allen, he feels strongly that President Trump has done a poor job as president, but he supports Cathy McMorris Rodgers.
“I’m kind of an odd fellow," Langland said. "I believe in fiscal conservatism but I also see the importance of social services. I never find an ideal candidate, but Cathy McMorris at least seems to be a genuine person.”
Economic development issues are important to Meredith Banka of Spokane. She identifies as a Democrat and supports Lisa Brown.
“My husband and I, we’re small business owners here and I run a business from home," Banka said. "I think that Spokane is really starting to emerge as the amazing community that we’ve already always known it as. But I think we’re now on the radar in Seattle. We’re now on the radar in Portland. People are going to be moving here. I’m not seeing the economic growth and development supported at the congressional level that I would have expected.”
Banka opposes efforts to toss out the ACA, saying Obamacare made health care affordable for her family.
“We were able to obtain really great health insurance at a time when we were rebuilding as a family from a financial and career perspective and without that, my kids would have had really horrible, if any, insurance at all,” she said.
Our final poll respondent is Jonathan Bingle of Spokane, probably the youngest person we interviewed. He identifies as independent and he hasn’t decided yet on Cathy McMorris Rodgers or Lisa Brown. He also hasn’t decided yet about a minimum age for owning semi-automatic firearms.
“For me, I’m fine with whatever age we decide, whether it be 18 or 21, whatever it is, just as long as it’s consistent," Bingle said.
One thing he is sure of, he doesn’t like that he was required to buy health insurance.
“Every option that my wife and I were given were just so expensive and we couldn’t really afford it and so it put us into a bad position because we had to have it and now we have health care that is not any good that I have to pay for and it’s one of my most expensive bills,” Bingle said.
Stuart Elway says this Fifth District Congressional poll is only a snapshot in time, but it confirms the notion that the race between Cathy McMorris Rodgers and Lisa Brown figures to be unusually competitive. He says the race reminds him of the 1994 Fifth Congressional District race between then-Speaker of the House Tom Foley and Republican challenger George Nethercutt. He polled that race too.
“In September, that’s a little later in the year, I had Nethercutt ahead of Foley and nobody was believing me," Elway said. "It was a much smaller sample, but I had Foley leading by 40-to-36 percent in April of 1994.”
That's pretty close to the results of this year's poll. Perhaps we’ll check in with Stuart Elway later this year and see if this race follows a similar trajectory to that 1994 race.