YAKIMA, Wash. — These are hard times for Democrats in central Washington state.
For the first time in state history, the general election for a U.S. House seat features two Republicans and no Democrat. That's because the two Republicans in the 4th Congressional District received the most votes in the August primary under the state's system in which the top two vote-getters advance, regardless of party.
The state and national GOP are not taking sides in the race between Clint Didier, a tea party activist, and Dan Newhouse, a mainstream Republican.
"We are pleased that seat is going to remain in Republican hands," said Steve Beren, spokesman for the Washington State Republican Party. "It would be great if that happened in all the districts."
The 4th District covers central Washington, the state's agricultural powerhouse. The district grows apples, cherries, wine grapes and dozens of other high-value cash crops, and relies on thousands of migrant farmworkers who toil in fields and warehouses. The district's population centers are in Yakima and the Tri-Cities.
The district historically votes solidly for the GOP, going overwhelmingly for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney over President Barack Obama in 2012. Republican U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, who has held the seat since 1994, beat Democrat Mary Baechler 66 percent to 33 percent in 2012. The last time a Democrat won the seat was 1992.
With Hastings retiring, the primary election featured eight Republicans, two Democrats and two independents.
Didier, a former NFL player, got 31 percent of the vote, and Newhouse, a farmer and politician, got 25 percent. The two Democrats, Estakio Beltran and Tony Sandoval, combined for just 18 percent of the vote in what is considered the state's most conservative House district.
Democrats had figured to draw some 30 percent of the primary vote but ended up far short.
"I'm not sure why," said Mary Stephenson, a long-time Democratic leader in Yakima.
Yakima, with 91,000 residents, is the largest city in the district, and the population is more than 40 percent Hispanic. But Republicans hold virtually all the elected offices here.
"We are just concentrating on surviving," said Susan Palmer, a Yakima County Democratic activist. "We need to do a better job of energizing and connecting with our community."
Stephenson, who is chair of the 4th District's Democratic Central Committee, said party leaders aren't sure how to react to having only Republican choices in the House race.
Some want to hold their noses and vote for Newhouse, who served as director of the state Agriculture Department under former Democratic Gov. Christine Gregoire, Stephenson said. Newhouse has talked about the importance of reaching across the aisle to work with Democrats.
"He is more moderate," Stephenson said.
Others argue that Democrats should vote for Didier, who is so conservative he might be easier to defeat in a future race, Stephenson said.
A third option is to launch an almost-certainly-doomed write-in campaign just to give Democrats a choice, she said
"Each person will have to vote their conscience," Stephenson said.
Newhouse, who trailed after the primary, doesn't plan to make any special effort to pick up Democratic votes, spokesman Tim Kovis said.
"Dan is going to keep being himself, a conservative who will work with people to solve problems rather than be a part of the gridlock in Washington D.C.," Kovis said.
Didier, however, believes his tea party message may resonate with some Democrats.
"We believe that Clint's populist campaign and strong economic message — pro-agriculture, pro-domestic energy, pro-American jobs — and strong family values, resonates well with the Hispanic community and blue collar union tradesmen and others who may traditionally vote Democratic," said Larry Stickney, Didier's campaign manager.
Hastings this week endorsed Newhouse as his replacement. That drew the ire of Didier.
"They say you can judge a man by the company he keeps," Didier said, contending that Newhouse is supported by lobbyists and Washington, D.C., insiders.
By contrast, Didier said he is seeking support from "liberty loving patriots who want to limit federal government powers and restore our freedoms."
As for the November election, Democrats in Yakima are focusing on electing Teodora Martinez-Chavez and Gabriel Munoz to the state Legislature.
"We have no Democrats in the Legislature," Stephenson said of central Washington. "We are trying to build our party."
Democrats find hope in the fast-growing Hispanic community in central Washington. Even though Hispanics have become the majority in many communities, they have had little success winning political office. Stephenson said that is likely to change over time.
Martinez-Chavez said it would be nice to have a Democratic House candidate at the top of the ticket. However, she doesn't think the lack of one dooms her candidacy.
"I think I'm a good candidate," she said. "I represent my community."