Battle for Washington’s 3rd Congressional District

The unvaxxed ex-Green Beret aiming to take down an anti-Trump Republican

Jaime Herrera Beutler is one of just 10 Republicans in House who voted for impeachment and former president wants them gone, writes Andrew Buncombe

Monday 07 February 2022 20:42 GMT
Joe Kent, a GOP challenger to Jaime Herrera Beutler, speaks at a ‘Justice For J6 rally’ near the US Capitol
Joe Kent, a GOP challenger to Jaime Herrera Beutler, speaks at a ‘Justice For J6 rally’ near the US Capitol (AP)

Joe Kent spent 20 years fighting in America’s foreign wars – battles that politicians deemed were vital to safeguard the nation.

Along the way, he says he had an insight into the best and worst of the country. The best were the people of every background and colour who fought to uphold American values; the worst was when mid-level officials who thought they knew better intentionally sabotaged the plans.

He also lost his wife, a Navy cryptographer, killed by an Isis bomb in Syria, and had a face-to-face meeting with Donald Trump when he offered his condolences.

Now Kent, 41, is back in the Pacific Northwest where he grew up and fighting to defeat a Republican congresswoman who not only voted to certify the election victory of Joe Biden, but also supported impeaching Trump. He describes that politician, Jaime Herrera Beutler and others like her, as Republicans in Name Only, or RINOs.

He has Trump’s backing to take on Herrera Beutler, one of just 10 Republicans in the House who voted for impeachment. That endorsement has created a political petri dish of sorts, out of the fight for Washington’s third congressional district, by which to measure the level of Trump’s enduring influence.

Joe Kent to call for impeachment of ‘unfit’ Joe Biden

It has also raised Kent’s profile and helped his fund-raising efforts. Last week, Kent appeared at an event Trump hosted for him at his Mar-a-Lago mansion in Florida, where the former president looked on approvingly as Kent spoke.

And in one recent poll, Kent sits in first place, with Herrera Beutler in third, behind one of several Democrats contesting a primary election to be held in August.

“We’re feeling pretty strong,” Kent tells The Independent. “[Trump’s] still probably the most powerful endorsement in the history of US politics.”

Kent, a former Green Beret and CIA contractor, supports Trump’s false claim the election was rigged, despite the former president’s own election security unit at the Department of Homeland Security saying it was fair, and the courts rejecting every effort to overturn the result. He has also backed a series of hardline “America-first” policies – shuttering the borders, along with a defence of so-called “medical freedom”, and a vow to release those arrested over the January 6 riot.

Having launched his campaign last year and received Trump’s endorsement in September, Kent, who says he is not vaccinated against Covid-19 – he says he caught the illness early on – and opposes vaccine mandates, is speaking to voters across the district.

At a low-ceilinged, upstairs restaurant in Chehalis, 90 miles south of Seattle, he tells a lunch meeting of the Lewis County Republican Club he never intended to enter politics.

When his wife, Shannon Smith, was killed by an Isis suicide-bomber in Jan 2019, he says his life changed. He decided he needed to prioritise the safety of their two young sons, and return to a more stable life.

“I was actually deployed in Africa when she was killed,’ he says. “On the way home, I said ‘I have to put this kind of life behind me. I want to come back to work where I was born and raised’.”

Representative Jaime Herrera Beutler was one of 10 Republicans in the House who voted to impeach Donald Trump (POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Three days later, Kent says he met Trump at Dover Air Force Base,  Delaware, long the initial destination for the return of bodies of members of the military killed overseas.

Kent says he spoke to Trump for 10 minutes. They talked not only about his wife, but about America’s so-called war on terror and where the nation’s focus should be,.

“I told him, ‘Hey look, you don’t know who I am. But I’m a guy who’s been fighting these wars my entire adult life. And you’re getting this right. But you’re being thwarted at the mid to senior levels in a way that I have never seen before’,” says Kent.

He says he served under Bill Clinton, George W Bush and Barack Obama. “The amount of disdain and general treachery towards President Trump was something I’d never seen before. While at the same time, he was actually getting things right.”

He adds: “He was letting us actually go out and defeat the enemy. But then, when we got to the point where the enemy was destroyed, he said ‘Hey, I’m getting the troops out. This is what I campaigned on, and this is what I’m going to do’.”

He says his wife was killed one month after Trump gave the order for the US troops to leave Syria, an announcement that resulted in the resignation of defence secretary James Mattis and others.

Kent, who at the time was contracted to the CIA, says Trump’s people followed up and offered him a position. He turned down a full time job but agreed to work on the 2020 campaign.

He tells the small crowd in Chehalis, part of Lewis County, said to be the most conservative part of western Washington state, he took the plunge into politics after the events of January 6 2021.

While many Americans were horrified by what they saw on their televisions as hundreds of supporters of Trump stormed the US Capitol while members of both chambers were meeting to certify the elections, Kent says he was angered by the actions of Herrera Beutler.

Kent claims – contrary to the evidence of election officials – there were sufficient doubts about the integrity of the election, so she should not have voted to certify Biden’s victory. As it was, around 140 Republican members of Congress and eight in the Senate voted but not to do so, while about 80 – among them Herrera Beutler – voted to confirm Biden as the 46th president.

“Then she doubles down on that with a vote for the sham impeachment trial, and she volunteers to be the star witness,” he says. “Seeing all of that I knew I had to do something, so I called around to all the different Republican offices and said ‘Is there a plan to get rid of her because she’s been a bad Republican for a very long time’.” Kent says he heard nothing back.

“We have a saying in the military – in the absence of orders, attack. And that’s the way I felt. If no-one’s going to do this, I’m going to do it.”

One of those listening to Kent is 63-year-old Candy Warren, who says she is much impressed by what she has heard.

“I think he is spot on. I will vote for this guy,” says Warren, a retired state trooper.

In his endorsement, Trump said Kent was running against “a RINO and incompetent congresswoman”.

“Joe Kent is strong on crime and the border, loves our military and our vets, and will protect our second amendment, which is under siege,” he said.

A report by Oregon Public Broadcasting said Kent started to distrust the authorities at an early age. In 1999, his father, Chris Kent, a lawyer, won a landmark $6m settlement against the FBI after a judge ruled agents wilfully leaked bad intelligence alleging a Portland-area banker had bribed Czech Republic officials.

Joe Kent speaks at meeting of Skamania County Republican Party in Washington state (Andrew Buncombe)

It said Kent started digging into other controversies involving the FBI and the US Marshals Service, including the 11-day siege at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, in 1992 in which suspect Randy Weaver’s teenage son and a friend were killed, and the siege of the Branch Davidian cult in Waco, Texas, in 1993 that ended with more than 80 people losing their lives.

“I thought maybe it was just a one-off, but the more you go down the rabbit hole of the origins of Ruby Ridge and Waco and all that, it’s like ‘Oh, that’s kind of what these guys do’,” Kent told OPB.

Trump’s endorsement has caught the attention of the likes of libertarian tech billionaire Peter Thiel, founder of PayPal, who has given the maximum $5,800 to Kent’s campaign.

As it stands, Herrera Beutler, 43, is still raising more money than Kent. Filings with the Federal Election Commission suggest in the final quarter of 2021, she raised $535,000 and had $1.65m on hand.

Meanwhile, he raised $306,000 and his campaign had $990,000 on hand.

Herrera Beutler’s office in Washington DC referred injuries to her campaign staff. Her campaign office did not respond to inquiries.

Observers of the Republican Party say Kent could be labelled an adherent of what has been termed “national conservatism”.

Geoffrey Kabaservice, a political scientist at the Niskanen Center, a libertarian think tank, and who previously served as a researcher for the Republican Main Street Caucus, a group of mainstream legislators, says Herrera Beutler would be considered a Reaganite conservative in most other eras.

By contrast, Kent has been marrying populism and elements that were far more right wing and even “dangerous”.

“He’s openly campaigned on the idea he’s going to go to Congress and will immediately start a congressional inquisition into all of the states that ‘lied’ about their results,” says Kabaservice, whose books include Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party, From Eisenhower to the Tea Party.

“Ultimately, he’s hinting to his followers they will overturn those election results, and Trump will be brought back in a blaze of glory.”

Kent has been a vocal defender of those arrested after the January 6 riots, and appeared at a right wing  “Justice for J6” rally, last September.

Police had expected large numbers of demonstrators from groups such as the Proud Boys. In the end the crowd was just 600. Some of those reportedly wore the insignia of the Three Percenters, a militia group.

“We gave our message, that there’s people being held without their constitutional rights being given them,” Kent told the crowd.

Kent has also received the backing of the Skamania County Republican Party in the far south of Washington state.

He was recently one of half-a-dozen candidates seeking various offices, who addressed an audience of around 50 people.

Three of the hopefuls were campaigning to be Skamania’s sheriff and all said they backed a “sheriff’s rights” philosophy that suggests a locally elected sheriff has more constitutional authority than state or federal officials. All said they would not enforce state regulations relating to Covid-19.

One was asked whether, if governor Jay Inslee announced a stay-at-home order because of an outbreak of Ebola, they would enforce it. “No,” was the response.

Also addressing voters was Heidi St John, a Christian author who is also challenging a Republican in the primary. She raised $148,000 in the same period, and has $221,000 on hand.

Kent has supported Trump’s false claim the 2020 election was rigged (EPA)

Kent is the last to speak. He delivers what has already become his stump speech – fighting overseas, losing his wife, meeting Trump, the need to get rid of the incumbent congressman.

Some of his comments sound similar to the populist message delivered by Bernie Sanders made during his two presidential runs.

“The vast majority of our manufacturing base was shipped overseas to China, to our number one geo-strategic foe who is at war with us,” says Kent.

“All of this benefited the permanent ruling class, whether in the government or whether on Wall Street. It didn’t benefit the American people, it didn’t benefit the American families.”

The final question from the crowd is from The Independent. Given that service to the military was so central to his view, does he accept Biden is the president and would he consider him the commander-in-chief if he was still in service?

“I spent a little over 20 years in the military. I have my issues with the way the last election was done. I think it was stolen. I think it was rigged. I want to prove that in a judicious process. That’s why I heavily advocate congressional oversight,” he says.

“However, Joe Biden was sworn in. I don’t like that. I’m not in the military right now. I’m glad I’m not in the military. If I was still in the military, yeah, I would have to serve under him, or I have to make make the choice of leaving the military and resigning my commission.”

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