SEATTLE — A deluge of outside PAC money is saturating two of Washington's top congressional primaries, aimed at helping Republican Reps. Jaime Herrera Beutler and Dan Newhouse survive their votes to impeach then-President Donald Trump last year.
More than $3.4 million — fueled in part by hidden donors — has been spent in the past few weeks backing the incumbents and targeting their Trump-endorsed challengers, Joe Kent and Loren Culp, according to Federal Election Commission filings.
The cash influx comes at a high-stakes moment for Republicans, and the country, as voters choose whether to oust two representatives who broke with most of the House GOP and voted to impeach Trump over his stoking of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Both Kent, who is challenging Herrera Beutler, and Culp, who is challenging Newhouse, have echoed Trump's false claims about his 2020 election loss and reject the ongoing congressional investigation into the Jan. 6 attack as illegitimate.
Newhouse and Herrera Beutler are likely more vulnerable in the primary, where they could place third behind their Trump backed-challengers and Democratic candidates. If they survive, their odds of winning in November look easier.
Kent and Culp said the spending spree targeting them shows the Washington, D.C., establishment is running scared.
"It's big money from D.C.," Culp said in an interview, saying lobbyists are working to "prop up" Newhouse.
In Southwest Washington's 3rd Congressional District, where Herrera Beutler faces Kent and other challengers, $1.9 million in outside spending has boosted her chances in recent weeks — including a pop-up super PAC that timed its spending to avoid disclosing its donors until weeks after the Aug. 2 primary.
The super PAC, Conservatives for a Stronger America, was created just a few weeks ago. As of Wednesday, it had unloaded $1.4 million on TV, radio and mailers, attacking Kent and ostensibly supporting Heidi St. John, a Republican who has polled fourth in the race.
The messaging in the group's ads appear designed to siphon support from Kent and ensure Herrera Beutler makes it through the top-two primary. Its ads have echoed St. John's efforts to sour conservatives on Kent by branding him a leftist, "Portland Joe the Bernie bro." (Kent has acknowledged voting for Bernie Sanders in Oregon's 2016 presidential primary, as part of what he said was a Rush Limbaugh-inspired plan to wreak havoc on Democrats.)
"The goal is not to get Heidi across the finish line, it's to take a little away from me," Kent said in an interview. "This is what people need to understand. ... This is how the establishment wins."
St. John is a Christian speaker and home schooling advocate who has feuded with Kent, a decorated Army Ranger combat veteran, calling him a carpetbagger with few ties to the 3rd District. Kent has criticized St. John for reneging on her pledge to drop out of the race and support whichever candidate won Trump's endorsement.
Matt Braynard, Kent's campaign consultant, said the campaign intends to file an FEC complaint against Conservatives for a Stronger America, alleging the group has violated donor disclosure laws.
An attorney representing the group said its actions have been legal.
The super PAC's treasurer listed on its filings is Charles Gantt of the Massachusetts-based political firm Red Curve Solutions. He referred a message seeking comment to Jessica Furst Johnson, a Washington, D.C.-based attorney and former general counsel for the National Republican Congressional Committee, the campaign arm for House Republicans.
"This political committee is compliant with federal law and applicable regulations, and operates as a monthly filer, which means that its next report is due on 8/20," Johnson wrote in an email.
Pop-up super PACS have increasingly taken advantage of FEC disclosure windows to meddle in congressional and gubernatorial primaries — often concealing donors who fund disingenuous ads that mask their real political agenda until votes are counted.
In the 2020 election cycle, such groups spent at least $39.5 million nationally to influence primaries while keeping their donors hidden from primary voters, according to OpenSecrets, a nonpartisan group that tracks money in politics.
"The advantage of getting involved in that way is that if people were to know who you were, it would discredit your messaging," Sarah Bryner, research director for OpenSecrets, said in an interview. "By the time you see meaningful disclosure the election is over."
Besides the so-far anonymous money, Herrera Beutler, who is running for a seventh term, also has benefited from more conventional PAC support.
The Governing Majority Fund, whose top donors include Chevron and an array of business and union groups, has spent more than $140,000 against Kent.
ClearPath Action, a PAC founded by conservative philanthropist and clean-energy advocate Jay Faison, also has spent $135,000 in support of Herrera Beutler. WFW Action Fund, which works to elect Republican women to Congress, has spent $307,000 supporting Herrera Beutler.
Herrera Beutler's campaign declined to comment on the independent spending.
"We find out about these efforts when everyone else sees them and don't have anything to add here," her campaign spokesperson Craig Wheeler said via email. "Jaime's not taking her focus off her job responsibilities — addressing the affordability crisis, protecting Social Security and meeting community infrastructure needs."
David Nierenberg, an investment manager helping lead fundraising for Herrera Beutler, said in an email he didn't know the source of the undisclosed PAC cash boosting St. John, but added he was "delighted" by her attacks on Kent.
"Since she and Kent are competing for similar voters, I remain hopeful for Jaime's prospects of getting through the primary," Nierenberg said. "If she does, she should carry the general election easily."
In addition to Kent and St. John, state Rep. Vicki Kraft, a Vancouver Republican, is also running in the primary, further dividing the GOP vote.
Amid the Republican infighting, Democrats see a potential opportunity, as they have united behind candidate Marie Gluesenkamp Perez, who owns an auto shop with her husband in Skamania County and is touting a platform of lowering prescription drug and child care costs, and investing in apprenticeship training.
"There are just all kinds of shenanigans over there," Perez said in an interview. "If I were a Republican voter, I would feel pretty disappointed by all these games they're playing."
While Perez would be a longshot if she and Herrera Beutler get through the primary, she said she's "very confident" she could beat Kent in a general election due to his extremist views.
A similar dynamic is at play in the 4th District, which covers Central Washington, where Newhouse faces several Republican challengers and a single Democrat in the primary.
Culp is the best-known of the challengers. The former small-town police chief and 2020 gubernatorial candidate beat a crowded field of GOP rivals in the primary that year but lost to Gov. Jay Inslee by more than half a million votes.
As of Wednesday, spending groups had dropped about $1.5 million into the primary, attacking Culp and supporting Newhouse — a particularly hefty sum in the largely rural congressional district.
"Newhouse has to hit me. He has to try to knock me down," said Culp, citing internal polling showing him leading the primary race.
Newhouse's campaign did not respond to messages seeking comment.
The spending includes $214,000 from Americans Keeping Country First, a super PAC defending Republican members of Congress who voted to impeach Trump. The group was founded by allies of Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., an impeachment supporter and member of the Jan. 6 committee, according to The Washington Post.
Nearly $1.2 million has come in from the Defending Main Street super PAC, which backs House GOP incumbents against far-right challengers. The group's top donors include a major cryptocurrency exchange and unions representing plumbers, firefighters and engineers.
That group's ads include mailers targeting Culp as a "self-dealing conman," citing his campaign spending in the 2020 gubernatorial race, according to the Washington Observer, a blog covering campaign finance in the state. That spending included reimbursing himself $48,000 for lost wages and mileage, as well as large unexplained payments to vendors.
In addition to Culp, Newhouse is facing several other Republican challengers, including state Rep. Brad Klippert, a Kennewick Republican, and a Democrat, Doug White, who had a career in international business before returning to Central Washington to farm.
Randy Pepple, a veteran GOP consultant, predicted Newhouse and Herrera Beutler "should win easily" in November "after splintered primaries which show that there is not a united front against them despite all Trump's bluster."