State Representative Robert Sutherland, left, gives a thumbs-up to passing drivers as he and a few volunteers wave flags and campaign signs along the side of State Route 9 on July 22, in Lake Stevens. Sam Low, right, talks with seniors on July 20 in Lake Stevens. (Sutherland photo by Ryan Berry / The Herald, Low photo by Kevin Clark / The Herald)

State Representative Robert Sutherland, left, gives a thumbs-up to passing drivers as he and a few volunteers wave flags and campaign signs along the side of State Route 9 on July 22, in Lake Stevens. Sam Low, right, talks with seniors on July 20 in Lake Stevens. (Sutherland photo by Ryan Berry / The Herald, Low photo by Kevin Clark / The Herald)

In GOP battle of Sutherland vs. Low, Democrats may tip the scale

The state lawmaker and Snohomish County council member are vying for a House seat. Democrats make up roughly 40% of the vote.

LAKE STEVENS — Rep. Robert Sutherland’s future as a state lawmaker may rest in the hands of Democrats.

The same can be said for his opponent, Snohomish County Councilmember Sam Low.

Both are Republicans. Together they garnered 60% of votes cast in last week’s primary in the 39th Legislative Districts. The rest went to Democratic candidates Claus Joens and Karl de Jong.

With Sutherland and Low expected to split Republican votes in the general election this fall, corralling support from Democrats will be requisite to win a two-year term representing communities in Snohomish and Skagit counties.

“I would love to earn all their votes, not just some,” Sutherland wrote in an email. “With two Republicans in the race, voting Democrats will scrutinize both of us very carefully.”

He said he’ll do “what I have always done, be real. Voters respect that. I speak my mind, I tell the truth. In the end they want someone who will speak the truth and offer real, common sense solutions to the problems that affect them.”

Low won’t be adjusting his campaign strategy either.

“I am not going to change anything that I have done so far,” he said. “I feel I have a message that appeals to everyone in the district. That message is effective leadership.”

He wouldn’t say if he’ll seek endorsements from Joens and de Jong. He’ll take them if offered.

“Sure, I am running to represent everybody in the district,” he said. “They will be two of my constituents.”

Reached Friday, de Jong said he had called Low to congratulate him on advancing. As for an endorsement, he said, “We’ll see. I am not ready to jump that fence quite yet”

“I will try to keep an open door with Sam. He’s been responsive. I’ve tried to keep an open door with the incumbent but the responsiveness wasn’t there,” he said.

Democratic Party organizations won’t formally take sides. Local party leaders are, mostly, encouraging their partisans to do their homework before deciding whether and how to vote in this contest.

“My recommendation for Democrats is that they should vote their conscience,” said Jordan Sears, chair of the 39th District Democrats.

“Both Sutherland and Low support policies that will harm the most vulnerable in society. Sutherland has been a lame duck since he was first elected and hasn’t been able to get anything done, while Low does have the ability to get things passed,” he said. “The most important thing is that whichever one of them wins stays in a reduced Republican minority.”

Rep. Emily Wicks, D-Everett, of the neighboring 38th District, said her advice for Democrats “would be to stay away from that race.”

Sutherland is “obnoxious but harmless because he’s so toxic to his party. He has zero power.” She said Low isn’t a better option as he masks his conservative views, citing as an example his missing votes the past two years on resolutions recognizing Pride Month — and not saying how he would have voted.

“It’s choosing between an obvious bigot or a secret bigot who tries to play things differently,” she said.

Randy Pepple, a longtime Republican strategist, said Democrats who choose to participate will be looking for that factor that would, in their mind, disqualify Sutherland or Low from getting their vote.

“That means (the candidates) are not going to get Democrat votes by talking about themselves,” he said. They are going to get Democrat votes by talking about the other guy.”

Sutherland, 62, of Granite Falls, is seeking a third term. An ardent conservative, this past term he gained followers and detractors with his outspoken opposition to vaccine mandates imposed on lawmakers and embrace of former President Donald Trump’s false election fraud conspiracies. Early this year he got reprimanded after a verbal altercation with a House security chief. He lost an appeal.

Low, 52, of Lake Stevens, has served on the County Council since 2016, winning a second full term in 2021. He positions himself as a moderate Republican who pursues a “balanced” approach to governing. He boasts of befriending Democrats even when they disagree on issues.

Sutherland won his first two terms easily. But redistricting carved out communities along U.S. 2 where he dominated and brought in the city of Lake Stevens where Low is popular.

Sutherland led Low by a margin of 32.1% to 27.6% in ballot counts through Friday. Roughly 1,400 votes separated them. Political consultants see a bumpier road for Sutherland than Low — not just because he needs Democrats.

“The incumbent is definitely in trouble,” said Chad Minnick, a campaign adviser for Republican candidates and former Snohomish County resident. “If seven out of 10 people say they’d rather have anybody but the incumbent … then that definitely means you have a lot of work to do.”

Low cited the same math in assessing the landscape ahead of the Nov. 8 election.

“I am running for the seven out of 10, whoever they are,” he said. “He’ll make his record clear. I’ll make my record clear.”

For him there’s one overriding issue: “What has the incumbent done for the district the last four years? This election is really about that.”

Sutherland will focus on concerns about increasing crime rates, higher inflation, and rising costs of fuel, food housing and day care. He hopes Democrats are discerning.

“My solutions will help their children gain a better education, live in safer communities, help them live in a home they can afford, and shorten their commute times,” he said.

Results of the primary will be certified Aug. 16.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @dospueblos.

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