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Joe Kent is campaigning differently.

Inside Violet Prairie Grange hall in Tenino, a crowd of about two dozen sits on folding chairs and benches awaiting Joe Kent, the man most, if not all, want to see elected this fall to represent southwest Washington in Congress.

Pastor Jim Gilman is among the first to greet the Republican candidate when he enters just before 6:30 p.m. and, after a brief chat, gets a selfie. Gilman, of neighboring Bucoda, voted for Kent in 2022 and is eager to do so again.

“I’m a conservative. He’s pro-USA. And he sticks to his principles,” said Gilman on Monday evening.

Moments later, Kent launches into a nearly 20-minute soliloquy followed by more than an hour of fielding questions and commentaries. The former Army Special Forces soldier spoke with swagger and a periodic dash of bombast as he bounced between subjects, in a manner reflective of former president Donald Trump, who endorsed Kent in 2022.

Kent’s tone is similar to his last campaign. But his focus seems different than in 2022, when he lost to Rep. Marie Gluesenkamp Perez, then an unknown and unheralded Democrat, by 2,629 votes. That defeat cost the Republican Party the 3rd Congressional District seat it had held for more than a decade.

On this night, and at a slew of recent town halls, Kent riffs on the Republican Party’s bread-and-butter issues this cycle. Last time he leaned in on election fraud conspiracies, spoke loudly for a national ban on abortion and fully embraced Trump – and it may have lost him votes from moderate

Republicans and independents.

Republican congressional candidate Joe Kent (r) takes a photo with Pastor Jim Gilman of Bucoda before a town hall in Tenino, Wash. on June 3, 2024 (Jerry Cornfield/Washington State Standard)

In Tenino, he opens with the economy – “the biggest issue as it pretty much affects everybody.” Inflation is destroying the middle class. Government spending under the Biden Administration is out of control. Too many federal dollars are getting spent on wars in other countries rather than infrastructure in this one, he says.

He moves to immigration, saying the border must be secured to stop the flow of illegal drugs and unvetted individuals – “we have no idea who these people are” – who may be from terrorist organizations. Asked if he’d use the military to stem the human tide, he said sure.

He pivots to fentanyl, a potent opioid that killed more than 80,000 Americans last year. He blames policies pushed by Democrats for “open borders” and lax drug enforcement that have allowed fentanyl’s scourge into small towns of the congressional district.

Kent decries school mandates he says prevent parents from knowing what their children are being taught in areas such as sex education. He said he opposes letting biological males compete against females or go into girls’ locker rooms, a reference to allowing trans women to participate in women’s athletics.

When the questions come, many center on health care and the difficulty veterans face getting treatment since the closure of a Department of Veterans Affairs clinic in Chehalis three years ago. He vows to seek changes to let veterans get care where they want and send the bill to the federal government.

No one asked him about abortion. Kent didn’t bring it up. But Perez and Democratic operatives are certain to make voters aware of his opposition to abortion, and past statements comparing it with slavery.

Kent spoke honestly about his views last time and it caused problems for his candidacy, said a spokesman for a national political action committee that gathers and circulates opposition research on Republican candidates. Kent is one of the group’s targets.

“I think (the town hall) is more him being a chameleon, telling voters what he thinks they want to hear. It’s not who he really is,” said Philip Shulman, states and special projects communications director for the American Bridge 21st Century PAC.

‘Our superpower’ and Trump

The 3rd District race will attract national attention and significant spending as a political battleground in 2024. Republicans are smarting from losing the seat and Democrats are motivated to keep it as they eye the potential to retake the House majority. The district covers Clark, Cowlitz, Lewis, Pacific, Wahkiakum, and Skamania counties and a touch of Thurston County.

Perez moves easily among moderates in the House Democratic Caucus and is a co-chair of the Blue Dog Coalition. This week she backed President Joe Biden’s move to restrict immigration under certain conditions, calling it an “overdue step,” and was the only Democrat in Washington’s delegation to support a House bill funding military construction and the VA.

Phil Gardner, senior advisor to Perez, said he had not watched the town halls. But Kent’s social media posts and appearances with right-wing figures such as Steve Bannon don’t signal a qualitative difference in his politics, he said.

“While he may have become more sophisticated at prioritizing his message at events, he’s clearly just as extreme as the last cycle,” Gardner said. “The really kooky stuff he says online, and slips out sometimes, is really who he is.”

Kent is viewed as the top Republican challenger and is endorsed by the state Republican Party. But he’s not the only GOP contender in the 3rd.

Leslie Lewallen, a Republican and a Camas City Council member, has garnered backing of several GOP stalwarts and another federal office-seeker, Tiffany Smiley, who is running in the 4th Congressional District.

Lewallen casts herself as more electable than Kent in a district closely divided between Democrats and Republicans. When asked about Kent’s town hall approach, she called him “a hypocrite.”

 

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