SPOKANE, Wash. — Democrats in Washington state celebrated early primary returns as they seek to capture three GOP-held congressional districts - including one occupied by Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a top Republican House leader.
Washington's primaries are a top-two system, meaning the two candidates with the most votes advance regardless of party. It's encouraging to Democrats that their candidate, Lisa Brown, has nearly as many votes as McMorris Rodgers in early returns Wednesday in the 5th District race.
Washington is a vote-by-mail state, and voters had a deadline of 8 p.m. Tuesday to have their ballot postmarked or placed in a drop box. In some of the more competitive races, results may not be known for days as most counties will update vote counts only once a day.
Just over 27 percent of the vote had been counted by Wednesday night.
"The eyes of the nation will be on those three seats," state GOP Chairman Caleb Heimlich said of the 3rd, 5th and 8th Districts on Tuesday night. "We will do the hard work and we will connect voters and keep those seats in Republican hands."
In the 5th District in eastern Washington, McMorris Rodgers advanced Tuesday, along with Brown, a former chancellor of Washington State University who previously served as majority leader in the state Senate. Brown and McMorris Rodgers were nearly tied in early returns, though the incumbent widened her lead slightly Wednesday.
Brown won Spokane County, by far the district's largest population center, and Whitman County, home of Washington State University. McMorris Rodgers won the other eight counties in the district, including a narrow victory in Walla Walla County, the district's only other large population center.
"It's encouraging," Brown said. "Eastern Washington is ready for a change."
McMorris Rodgers, the fourth-ranking House Republican, noted that three other conservative candidates on the ballot split more than 6,000 votes. Two were Republicans and one identified as a Trump Populist Party candidate.
McMorris Rodgers said she hoped many of those voters gravitated to her.
"I am going to work hard to earn their support," McMorris Rodgers said.
McMorris Rodgers sent a letter to Brown on Wednesday offering to participate in three debates — two in Spokane and one in Walla Walla — in October.
"We should work together to ensure that the voters have a chance to hear each other's views on the important challenges faced by eastern Washington and the nation," McMorris Rodgers wrote, in proposing debates sponsored by three business organizations in the two cities.
Brown replied that she had already accepted invitations from the two Spokane business groups, and was awaiting an invitation from the Walla Walla Chamber of Commerce. She said the business groups were "member-only organizations" and called for additional debates that were open to the public.
"I also think it's important that we have a debate on a college campus, and a televised debate for the entire district," Brown said.
Tina Podlodowski, chairwoman of the state Democratic Party, said that even though many more votes need to be counted, the early returns Tuesday night show that "nothing is guaranteed" for incumbent Republicans.
"Democrats are within striking distance of picking up three congressional seats," she said.
The close race in the early vote count in the 5th District is a good sign for Brown, said Cornell Clayton, director of the Thomas S. Foley Institute for Public Policy at Washington State University.
"It bodes well that, in a district where Trump did fairly well, that she is as close as she is," he said.
The strong Democratic performance in the 5th District race was consistent with House races in the 3rd and 8th districts, Clayton said.
"All three are Republican-held seats that are very competitive and, given the momentum of Democrats, likely to flip," Clayton said.
The contest getting the most attention is an open U.S. House seat Democrats hope to capture for the first time since the district east of Seattle was created in 1980. Incumbent Republican U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert is retiring from the 8th Congressional District after more than a decade.
Republican Dino Rossi, a former state senator who had unsuccessful runs for governor and U.S. Senate, was leading a crowded ballot and easily advanced to the general election.
Among the dozen candidates on the 8th District ballot, one of three Democrats are expected to advance: pediatrician Kim Schrier, attorney Jason Rittereiser, or former federal public-health official Shannon Hader. Schrier maintained her lead Wednesday for the second spot, followed closely by Rittereiser. In early returns, the three Democrats combined had a larger vote total than Rossi.
In the 3rd Congressional District in southwestern Washington, incumbent Republican Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler advanced along with Democrat Carolyn Long, a professor at Washington State University Vancouver. In early returns, Herrera Beutler had a slim lead over Long. Herrera Beutler has won her last two elections with more than 60 percent of the vote.