Congressional candidate Ben Stuckart is snoring from the back seat of his campaign manager's SUV. We wind through the rolling green and brown hills of Eastern Washington, passing livestock, farmhouses, two big Trump/Pence banners, and one homemade red-and-white sign that reads, "Hey crooked news media, stop lying to us."
When he wakes up, Stuckart stares out the window. "That's a mangy cow," he mutters out of nowhere. Soon we arrive in Pomeroy, a dusty time capsule that's home to 1,425 people.
Stuckart, the 45-year-old two-term progressive president of the Spokane City Council, is hoping to unseat six-term Republican congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a staunch defender of President Donald Trump who consistently wins 60 percent victories in her Eastern Washington district. No Democrat has held her seat since 1994. Stuckart wants to change that, so he's in Pomeroy a full 19 months before the 2018 election.
His town hall with the local Democratic Party must happen before nightfall. The Garfield County Democrats meet in an unused storefront on Pomeroy's main street that has no electricity, and you can't talk agricultural policy in the dark.
We pull into town and spot the meeting place on our left, a faded American flag banner in the window. Stuckart's campaign manager notices there's already a small crowd gathered for the town hall. "They're excited to see you, Ben," he says.
"How am I supposed to have a cigarette before we go in if there are already people there?" Stuckart says.
We drive past, round a corner, and pull into the empty parking lot of the post office. Stuckart, clean-shaven in a gray suit but no tie, takes drags from a Camel—his fourth since we hit the road in Spokane that morning—then puts it out on the SUV's back tire.
When the candidate walks up to the meeting spot, he sees a dozen elderly white people from across Eastern Washington gathered to hear him speak. Inside, mismatched office chairs line the edges of the room. Random area rugs cover the wood floors. On one of the alarmingly bright purple walls, a poster shouts, "PUSSY GRABS BACK."
Stuckart takes a seat right under the pussy poster. The head of the county Democrats introduces him as "Ben Stuckland," and Stuckart has to correct him.
"The reason we lost as Democrats in the fall," Stuckart tells the small crowd forcefully, "is that we didn't admit that there are problems. A lot of us said to ourselves, "The Obama years were great.'" But, Stuckart says, income inequality persists. He speaks faster and faster, clipping his sentences before they're finished, leaning forward in his chair.
"We tried to recover," Stuckart says, "but it was a slow recovery. People want bold answers, but they want to hear the truth... How are we going to attack income inequality if we can't honestly recognize and have empathy with everybody out there and understand what their problems are?"
Stuckart poses the biggest threat to Republicans in Eastern Washington in a long time. He is the first elected official with significant name recognition to take on McMorris Rodgers for the 5th Congressional District from the left. Like Donald Trump, he's fluent in "say it like it is" rhetoric. Like Bernie Sanders, he appeals to his supporters not in spite of his particular unpolished brand but because of it. He is a rare authentic politician—and whether or not that's rehearsed, it resonates.
Of voters, Stuckart says, "If they think you're actually full of shit and you're making up answers that aren't aligned with your values, then I think that's where you get in a situation where we've seen lots of politicians who—they're just another politician."
While some Republicans distance themselves from Trump, McMorris Rodgers, the fourth highest ranking Republican in the US House of Representatives, has been a fierce defender of the president and his policies. She earned 100 percent on FiveThirtyEight's Trump score, which measures how often members of Congress vote with the president.
To unseat his opponent, Stuckart hopes to capitalize on anti-Trump anger, if it lasts. Progressives in Spokane are hopeful. Jim Dawson, the Spokane-based program director at Fuse, a statewide organizing group that endorsed Stuckart in his last run for city council, says his name recognition and campaign experience make him viable.
"Ben is a progressive, but he is very plainspoken," Dawson says. "His ability to connect with people and be straightforward makes him more trustworthy in people's eyes."
Fuse recently hosted a so-called "empty seat" town hall in downtown Spokane for McMorris Rodgers. Like other Republican members of Congress, she has refused to hold a large meeting with constituents since the election. Still, 800 people came that day.
"We've never seen anything like this," Dawson says of the anger at McMorris Rodgers.
In Pomeroy, Pat Bates, who traveled about 40 minutes from Clarkston to get to the town hall, excitedly greets Stuckart. The new candidate only recently popped up on her radar, and he's already the best option. "He's going to run against Cathy!" she tells me. "Yay! We've been working so hard [to unseat her]." Bates says the district is home to a lot of poor seniors who are "very, very needy."
"All the things Cathy votes for would be against us," she says. (By press time, McMorris Rodgers had not responded to a request for comment for this article.)
After a weekend of events in rural areas, Stuckart hosts his first town hall in Spokane. Leading up to it, the Spokane County GOP creates a new page on its website—"Stop Stuckart!"—warning about his "Seattle style socialist policies." The site arms local Republicans with questions for the town hall.
"You admitted to using marijuana in the past and have said you planned to use it again," one question reads, citing Stuckart's comments to a Spokane newspaper. "Marijuana is currently federally illegal—do you plan to continue using marijuana if elected to Congress?"
Stuckart is an unapologetic liberal, but he's not exactly a Seattle socialist. As a city council member, he's been endorsed by both the state chapter of the Sierra Club and the Spokane Home Builders Association, a staunchly conservative group that represents developers and contractors.
He supports gun-control measures like preventing people who are on the terrorist watch list or those with domestic-violence convictions from buying guns, but he supports gun access for hunters and self-defense. He backs a $15 an hour federal minimum wage, but he says wage increases won't address income inequality without economic growth. He supports single-payer health care and broad immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship.
To get an idea of how Stuckart could bridge the gap between rural Democrats and Republicans, consider his take on agricultural issues. Climate change, he says, could threaten the quality of Washington's wheat, making it a less valuable export. Nearly 70 percent of people in the district believe global warming is happening, though only half believe it's caused mostly by human activities, according to recent data from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.
In the 5th District, where half of voters supported Trump and 60 percent backed McMorris Rodgers, 46 percent also backed Democratic senator Patty Murray in November. In all that, Stuckart sees a path to victory.
"There is a way to get somebody to vote for a D even though they're an R," Stuckart says. "We need to stop getting stuck in our heads. Speak from the gut, speak from the heart."
Stuckart was raised by longtime Democrats: a mother who was a teacher active in her union and a father who took a year off college to lead Vietnam War protests and then spent his life working for a nonprofit. Social-justice Catholicism shaped his political philosophy. As a kid, he watched as his church sheltered nine refugees from El Salvador in its basement.
"No matter what we do," Stuckart says, recounting a lesson from his father, "we always have to take care of the people at the bottom. It's not an argument of 'It's a nice thing to do; it's good to take care of your [community] members.' It's a moral responsibility."
After earning two degrees from Gonzaga University, Stuckart worked at a nonprofit where he helped develop a ballot measure for after-school programs. When that effort failed, he decided he wanted to be the one helping to write the city budget. So he ran for Spokane City Council. When he was elected, the council was split 4–3 with progressives in the minority. Today, Stuckart is one of a 6–1 progressive majority.
He's led efforts to increase backyard farming, give workers in Spokane sick time, and pour city funding into spurring private development. He's been outspoken about the threat of coal trains and introduced a measure to fine railroad operators carrying coal and crude oil through the city (an effort he later withdrew over concerns that it couldn't survive a legal challenge). Winning the support of some of Spokane's most prominent arts advocates, Stuckart helped triple arts funding in the city.
"I've done things in Spokane," he says, "that people never contemplated or thought were impossible."
Before Stuckart announced his run for Congress, he flirted with the idea of running for mayor instead. (Spokane's current mayor, David Condon, came to that office from a stint as McMorris Rodgers's deputy chief of staff.)
After Trump's win, national media reported that McMorris Rodgers could land a Trump cabinet appointment, leaving her seat open, and Stuckart announced he'd vie for her seat. McMorris Rodgers didn't get a Trump appointment, but Stuckart stayed in.
Now, as he looks ahead to a year and a half of campaigning, it's clear beating the incumbent won't be easy. The 5th Congressional District has steadily backed McMorris Rodgers, a former state legislator, handing her more than 59 percent of the vote nearly every time she's been up for reelection. The closest a Democratic challenger came to beating her was in 2006, when she was up against Peter Goldmark and won reelection with 56.4 percent of the vote. Stuckart blames that on the backgrounds of the candidates who've run, most of whom focused on their business experience but hadn't held elected office, leaving them no "track record" to point to.
The 5th District isn't included on the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's 2018 list of target districts—Republican-held seats they think are vulnerable. And Stuckart's campaign is still rough around the edges. He's raised just $82,300, compared to the $2.7 million McMorris Rodgers raised for her last election.
Stuckart has some time to catch up, though. This year, his campaign will focus on increasing his name recognition and talking about issues. To manage the campaign, Stuckart has hired Alex Scott, a relentlessly positive twentysomething who has an encyclopedic knowledge of Eastern Washington and served on his hometown's city council when he was a college student. If a group somewhere in the sprawling district wants to host an event for Stuckart, Scott is determined to get his candidate there.
In 2018, they'll knock on doors. Over lunch at a sandwich shop in Walla Walla, Stuckart diagrams on a brown napkin for me just how much they're going to door-knock: If 10 campaign volunteers go out every day of the month for eight months, and hit 50 doors every time they go out, the campaign can hit 120,000 doors by the 2018 primary. (Maybe a little overoptimistic, Stuckart initially does the math wrong, believing this plan can get him to 125,000 doors.)
The median income in the district is $47,000, and 16.5 percent of people make an income below the poverty level. Around 73,000 people in the district benefited from Medicaid expansion as part of the Affordable Care Act, according to state data, an expansion that would have been reversed by a Republican health-care bill McMorris Rodgers supported. Stuckart thinks he can sell his message here.
With fundraising and more name recognition, Stuckart hopes to eventually catch the attention of the DCCC. He wants to use small events like the one in Pomeroy to win over communities some Democrats may write off as unwinnable. And he needs help from progressives all over the state to do it.
"If we're going to change, we're all going to have to help each other," he says. "Just electing Democrats out of Seattle is no longer going to get us there."
Back at the vacant storefront the Democrats of Garfield County use to hold meetings, Stuckart never looks at the prepared remarks he brought with him except to flip the pages over so he can take notes on the back as the group talks about the intricacies of dam engineering.
He delivers an improvised 10-minute stump speech and spends an hour and a half taking the group's questions. He takes off his jacket, rolls up his sleeves, and clicks his pen as he talks.
"Trump is doing us all sorts of favors," Stuckart tells the group. "I think there is an enormous opportunity for Democrats to actually take back this seat. I call people and ask for money over the last three months, and they don't say, 'Well, no, this is an impossible task'. They say, 'This is the time, in 2018.'"