LAKE STEVENS — If campaign contributions are any indication, conservative Republican Rep. Robert Sutherland faces a serious challenge in the August primary from an establishment Republican who is amassing donations from prominent GOP officeholders locally and statewide.
Snohomish County Council member Sam Low hopes to unseat Sutherland, a Donald Trump devotee, in the newly drawn 39th Legislative District. Low has raised more than twice as much money. His donors include mayors, school leaders, a former secretary of state and two of Sutherland’s colleagues in the state House.
Low, of Lake Stevens, and Sutherland, of Granite Falls, are vying for the 39th Legislative District, a Republican stronghold in east Snohomish County that underwent a notable makeover with redistricting. Marblemount Democrat Claus Joens is also in the race.
New maps moved Lake Stevens out of the 44th District and into the 39th. Monroe, Gold Bar and much of Sultan got shifted out of the 39th and into the 12th. Now, two-thirds of residents of the 39th live in Snohomish County and the rest in Skagit County.
The seat is still considered safe for Republicans, but its GOP electorate is viewed as more moderate than before. Roughly half the eligible voters are new to the district and will not have seen Sutherland’s name on the ballot before. But most will have seen Low’s: He was re-elected to the County Council in November.
“I am watching with interest but not getting involved,” said House Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm. “Members are expected to win their own race. I have a lot of confidence a Republican is going win the general election.”
Low had amassed $69,576 as of Friday. Of the total, $43,216 is unspent money carried over from the recent council race.
Marysville Mayor Jon Nehring, who also chairs the Mainstream Republicans of Washington, is a contributor. So, too, are Lake Stevens Mayor Brett Gailey, Sultan Mayor Russell Wiita and Stanwood Mayor Sid Roberts.
Former Snohomish County Republican Party chairs James Kellett and Billye Brooks Sebastiani are also on the donor list, as are Sam Reed, a former secretary of state, and Kathy Lambert, an ex-King County Council member.
Republican state Reps. Paul Harris of Vancouver and Cynthia Jacobsenof Puyallup each contributed $100 last month.
“They actually reached out to me,” Low said. “I think it speaks to how people across the state view this race.”
Harris, chair of the House Republican Caucus, said he has found Sutherland a challenge to deal with.
Sutherland can be a volatile personality. At times, he’s had choice words and penned biting emails to colleagues. In public, Sutherland is popular at rallies of conservative activists for his roiling rhetoric. It can get him in trouble, too.
Last month Sutherland received a written reprimand from House Administration for violating legislative conduct rules when he berated and swore at the House chief of security on the Capitol grounds.
“I have huge respect for the institution and for all the individuals who work there,” Harris said. “I really want someone who will honor the institution and that will actually respect all the people. I know what I’ve got now, and I would love to give another person an opportunity to honor the institution.”
Harris’ contribution to Low didn’t surprise Sutherland.
“Representative Harris is notoriously unfair towards me, has been ever since I entered the caucus,” he said.
Sutherland’s embrace of Trump’s false claims of widespread election fraud in 2020 has deterred party moderates in Snohomish County.
But it earns him respect and support among many rank-and-file of the Grand Old Party. A crowd filled a Snohomish church last year for a forum he helped organize on alleged election fraud in Washington. He told supporters this week he may ask the Snohomish County auditor to conduct a forensic audit of ballots cast in the election — including those which got him re-elected.
He doesn’t view himself as a divisive figure within the party. Rather, he said, Low’s decision to challenge him is sowing division by forcing Republicans to choose sides.
“I would have considered (Sam) a friend before he did this,” he said. “It’s doing exactly what I thought it would do. It’s going to divide people in the caucus. It’s going to divide people in the county.”
Low said he’s “focused on my race” and not Sutherland.
“I think people will look at both of our records and be able to see a clear choice,” he said.
Low’s success thus far is going to force Sutherland to raise more money than in his prior two elections.
In 2018, he collected $22,862 and spent most of it en route to winning his House seat with 56.5%. He won re-election in 2020 with 60% of the vote. He did it while raising $23,406 and only spending about $14,500.
As of Thursday, Sutherland had collected $26,372, with about $21,000 in cash on hand.
“I’ve not had the need to raise significant sums in the past,” he said. “You will see a significant difference this time.”
And Sutherland isn’t without support in his caucus.
Conservative Republican Reps. Jim Walsh, of Aberdeen, and Jesse Young, of Gig Harbor, were among featured speakers at his campaign kick-off March 26.
Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @dospueblos.