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Meet the women who flipped two seats in the Pacific Northwest after years of one-party control

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Republicans gained 10 seats to control the House in these last elections, but many Democrats were elected for the first time, and they replaced outgoing members of their own party or won a seat from Republicans. Two district in the Pacific - districts in the Pacific Northwest flipped after years of one-party control, and each for different reasons. Troy Brynelson and Joni Auden Land of Oregon Public Broadcasting explain.

MARIE GLUESENKAMP PEREZ: Hey, Mom, they called it. (Laughter).

TROY BRYNELSON, BYLINE: In November, Marie Gluesenkamp Perez pulled off the biggest upset of the 2022 midterms. The Democrat from Washington state had seemingly come out of nowhere and flipped a district former President Donald Trump had won twice. Suddenly, she and her campaign manager scrambled to stage a nondescript Airbnb for national media interviews.

PHIL GARDNER: CNN, Wolf Blitzer would like to talk to you in the next 30 minutes. So...

GLUESENKAMP PEREZ: What do we do?

GARDNER: We're going to do it right there.

BRYNELSON: And so from the living room, she completed a congressional run barely anyone saw coming. She only entered the race in February and finished a distant fourth in fundraising before the primaries. Then she faced Trump acolyte Joe Kent in the general, who had just unseated a six-term Republican incumbent. So how did the auto shop owner from Skamania County pull it off?

GLUESENKAMP PEREZ: Since we got here, we've installed much better air filters, a four-post lift. The machine shop is new.

BRYNELSON: Like any politician, Gluesenkamp Perez tries to embody her district. Here in the southwestern part of the state, union shops in timber and aluminum used to carry Democrats. And the 34-year-old is the closest to a trades worker whom Democrats backed in at least a decade. She's unafraid to say both parties have hurt the working class and rural communities.

GLUESENKAMP PEREZ: And that feels like home to voters. That feels like the representation they want right now in D.C.

BRYNELSON: Being a newcomer also freed her from political baggage. She contrasted with Kent, a rising star in Trump's GOP. He campaigned on relitigating the 2020 election and other unproven, far-right ideas.

GLUESENKAMP PEREZ: And I ran against a guy who had an R after his name but did not reflect the values of most conservatives I know.

BRYNELSON: Among them were tens of thousands who still supported the incumbent, Jaime Herrera Butler, even after she broke Republican ranks to impeach Trump. Mel Kamerath from the industrial town of Kalama was on the fence until late October. When she sided with Gluesenkamp Perez, she volunteered to knock on doors, too. She saw many of her neighbors feeling lost.

MEL KAMERATH: We have the Democrats who are always going to vote Democrat leader, and then we had this special middle group of people who had lost their candidate in Jaime.

BRYNELSON: Gluesenkamp Perez outperformed the Democratic candidate for Senate thanks to gains in the district's rural towns, which she hopes to represent in the other Washington.

GLUESENKAMP PEREZ: I'm going to be a tireless advocate working with people across the aisle, anywhere I can find to pass bills that get us moving in the right direction.

BRYNELSON: She's trying to be realistic about committee assignments. She hopes she can help small businesses and timber. In southwest Washington, I'm Troy Brynelson.

JONI AUDEN LAND, BYLINE: And I'm Joni Auden Land, a few hours south in Bend, Ore. For the first time in 28 years, a Republican has won Oregon's 5th Congressional District. Lori Chavez-DeRemer, a former small-town mayor, will take control of the seat in what has been a huge pickup for Republicans this year. Chavez-DeRemer says she adopted an aggressive campaign strategy that took her all over the large district, which was heavily redrawn in 2020.

LORI CHAVEZ-DEREMER: I wanted to make sure that people knew who I was. People knew me in Happy Valley where I had served as mayor, but they didn't often know me as we headed south or over to central Oregon. So I made sure I spent time there.

LAND: Chavez-DeRemer rarely mentioned former President Trump and often avoided discussing conservative social issues such as abortion. She says she will seek a seat on the House Transportation Committee. Part of her success was painting her opponent, Democrat Jamie McLeod-Skinner, as a progressive outsider, like in this campaign ad.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Take away the props, the cheap slogans and the empty promises. You're just left with an out-of-touch San Francisco-area politician pretending to be Oregonian.

LAND: Redistricting greatly changed the shape of the district. This new 5th District is politically diverse and huge. It includes liberal strongholds like Portland and Bend, combined with conservative suburbs and rural mountain towns. The district leans slightly blue, but many have noted that Democrats in the area tend to lean more moderate. That could favor Republicans as they fight to maintain control of the seat.

KURT SCHRADER: The Democrats lost (laughter). Should've had me as the standard bearer. We would have won.

LAND: That is Kurt Schrader, the outgoing representative for Oregon's 5th District. He's been in that seat as a moderate Democrat for 12 years. However, he lost his primary to a more progressive challenger. Schrader got the backing of some big-name Democrats, namely President Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi, but his moderate positions cost him support on the local level. Chavez-DeRemer, however, says transcending party lines can work to her advantage.

CHAVEZ-DEREMER: I think I'm still going to be a good fit for this district based on the years of dedication and experience that I have put in in really changing the way we represent Oregonians.

LAND: Soon, though, she will have to start campaigning for the 2024 election. Much like Washington's 3rd District, maintaining control of such a tight seat is hardly a guarantee. For NPR News, I'm Joni Auden Land in Bend, Ore.

BRYNELSON: And I'm Troy Brynelson in southwest Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Joni Auden Land / OPB