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A Washington congressional district is weighing the election of a far-right candidate

ELISSA NADWORNY, HOST:

A once-moderate congressional district is weighing the possible election of a candidate molded in the GOP's radical wing. The race in Washington state pits a Republican with former President Trump's endorsement running against a business owner and moderate Democrat. It's also highlighted how heated political divisions have become politics as usual in this year's midterms. NPR congressional correspondent Claudia Grisales has more.

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: On a recent evening, a crowd was getting riled up during a debate between two congressional candidates.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: No, they did not.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: No, they didn't.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: No, they did not.

(CROSSTALK)

GRISALES: The debate, hosted on the campus of Lower Columbia College in Longview, Wash., by nearby Oregon Public Radio, saw audience outburst towards the candidates, the moderator and each other.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Fact-check, Pinocchio.

GRISALES: Political newcomer Republican Joe Kent is facing off against local business owner Democrat Marie Gluesenkamp Perez in Washington's 3rd Congressional District. The district, which covers the southwest corner of the state along the Oregon border, has seen the candidates battle over reports Kent has ties to white nationalist groups, among other controversial issues.

MARIE GLUESENKAMP PEREZ: He wants to re-establish a white majority.

JOE KENT: That's not true whatsoever.

UNIDENTIFIED MODERATOR: I want to...

KENT: No, no, that's not true. She's calling me a racist and misrepresenting what I've said.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GRISALES: A couple of days later during a visit to a local Vancouver church for a Dia de los Muertos event, Gluesenkamp Perez said she was worried about violence spilling out during the heated exchanges.

GLUESENKAMP PEREZ: Yeah, the last debate, really at a couple of points, looked like audience members might come to blows.

GRISALES: In an interview with NPR, Kent downplayed the worries and rejected reports by multiple media outlets documenting his extremist ties. Kent moved to Washington's 3rd from Oregon in 2020 and decided to run for office against Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler, one of 10 House Republicans who voted for Trump's impeachment. He ousted her in the primary. Kent, an ex-Green Beret who worked for the CIA, entered politics after his wife, Shannon Kent, a Navy linguist, was killed in a 2019 attack in Syria. That's when he met President Trump.

KENT: I mean, he was very gracious. I mean, I think he was - I think it was incredibly gracious of him to come and meet with all the families of the fallen personally.

(CHEERING)

GRISALES: Jeff Woll says America is falling behind and should be first. That's why he's supporting Kent, who is running on a Trump-style, America First platform. Woll gets emotional when he talks about the candidate.

JEFF WOLL: Joe Kent is - I mean, he's as honest as the day is long, and that's why we're supporting him.

GRISALES: Karen Morrison is also emotional when she explains why she's voting for Marie Gluesenkamp Perez. As a Black woman, she's worried about Kent's extremist ties.

KAREN MORRISON: I want a peaceful life like everyone else. I want to be able to have my family come here and feel safe and significant in this community. But with that rhetoric going on, I no longer feel safe.

GRISALES: Ultimately, the voters of Washington's 3rd District will decide which candidate they'll send to Congress. But political divisions back home are not going anywhere anytime soon. Claudia Grisales, NPR News, Washington state. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Claudia Grisales
Claudia Grisales is a congressional correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk.