State Representative Robert Sutherland 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. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

State Representative Robert Sutherland 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. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Sutherland’s defeat a product of many political ingredients

New boundaries, a tough GOP opponent and Democrats played a role. Sutherland’s embrace of Trump’s election fraud theories did too.

GRANITE FALLS — The first sign that Robert Sutherland’s pursuit of a third legislative term would be difficult came a year ago when he lost a valued piece of his political base through redistricting.

Precincts in Arlington, Gold Bar, Sultan and Monroe where the Republican state representative garnered thousands of votes in his 2020 win were gone. To replace them, redistricting commissioners shifted Lake Stevens into the 39th Legislative District, a community he’d never represented.

A second sign came in early January when Sam Low, a Republican and Snohomish County Council member, entered the race. He’s a Lake Stevens resident who had served on the City Council and had been on his neighbors’ ballots just a couple months earlier when he was re-elected to the County Council.

The final sign was the Aug. 2 primary. Sutherland won with 33.2%. Low finished second with 27.1%. He made it in because two Democratic candidates, Claus Joens and Karl de Jong, split 40% of ballots cast. Had only one of them run, they would likely have won the primary and left Low in third.

Instead, it left the outcome of the Nov. 8 election in the hands of those voters. If they decided to vote, it was unlikely many would choose Sutherland, a conservative firebrand convinced President Joe Biden didn’t win and former President Donald Trump didn’t play a role in inciting the Jan. 6 siege on the nation’s Capitol.

That’s how things turned out.

Last week Low won by wide margins in his hometown, small margins in Sutherland’s hometown and most precincts in the district that stretches into Skagit County. As of Wednesday, Low had received nearly 55% of the vote.

Though Sutherland hadn’t phoned Low to concede, he didn’t question the outcome.

“It was such a privilege to serve my constituents as their State Representative,” he said in an email. “I’ve been referred to as ‘The People’s Representative’ because of my fighting spirit in Olympia and at home. And coming back home after a long session to be greeted by thousands of grateful citizens in my District, perhaps millions across the state, was definitely a highlight.”

When asked for his analysis of what occurred, Sutherland claimed mailers sent out by Democratic organizations and statewide labor unions in the final days “unfortunately appeared to sway Democrat voters.”

“Add to this their large donations to the Low campaign which helped put him over the edge,” he wrote. “And democrat voters like a democrat-leaning, democrat-endorsing candidate like Councilman Low more than they do a principled, rule-of-law candidate as I am.”

Other Republicans didn’t see it the same way.

Rep. Drew MacEwen, R-Union, who criticized Sutherland’s comments about election fraud ahead of the 2021 siege on the Capitol, said the incumbent’s views were his undoing.

“People are just fed up with revisionist history. People who want to continue to spew out conspiracy theories are done,” he said.

Chad Minnick, a veteran GOP campaign consultant, said voters saw the clear contrast in style and approach of the two Republican office-holders.

“At the end of the day, voters chose a workhorse over a show horse,” he said. “Sam Low did not attack the incumbent. He just said I want the job.”

Low garnered endorsements from a multitude of city leaders in the district. He also outraised and outspent Sutherland by a roughly 3:1 margin. And he did have the backing of many organizations involved in the day-to-day grind of lawmaking each session.

On Wednesday, he traveled to Spokane where the House Republican Caucus he is joining will meet Thursday to elect its leadership team for 2023.

Low, who positioned himself as a “balanced” Republican, pledged in the campaign to focus on transportation, public safety and fiscal responsibility, and to work with Democrats on policy matters. That message clearly resonated with voters, he said.

“Obviously beating an incumbent is very rare. It’s not an easy thing to do,” he said. “I’m excited to have the opportunity to represent the voters for the next two years.”

A tenure of controversy

Sutherland, 62, was first elected in 2018, capturing an open seat created by the retirement of Dan Kristiansen, a Republican and former House Minority Leader. He beat Joens to win re-election in 2020. He received 60% of the vote.

He won’t leave a lasting legislative imprint. He will exit without having a single bill signed into law in two terms. Most of what he introduced never received a hearing.

However, this year he co-sponsored with Democratic Rep. Roger Goodman a significant policing reform bill that defined and clarified the standards for use of force by police. Sutherland said he was proud of that bill as it would help law enforcement do their jobs more effectively.

Sutherland did make an indelible impression as a purveyor of election conspiracy theories and as a verbal provocateur, hurling partisan jabs at Democrats, and a few spicy comments toward Republicans.

He loudly fought COVID mandates imposed in the Legislature, ultimately suing to block House rules requiring members be vaccinated in order to get into their offices or be on the House floor. He lost the suit.

In spring, he received a written reprimand for violating legislative conduct rules when he berated and swore at the House chief of security when the two men had a run-in on the Capitol grounds. Sutherland disputed most of the allegations but acknowledged he “used a bad word.”

“It’s great to see Rep. Sutherland move on. He was a corrosive influence,” said Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, D-Burien, who chairs the House Democratic Campaign Committee. “I don’t know Sam Low. I hope that he brings a good collaborative approach to the work.”

Sutherland, who makes no apologies for his brashness, is already hinting voters will see him on a ballot again.

“I still have my fighting spirit and a passion to help make Washington a better place to live for my kids and grandkids and everyone else’s,” he wrote. “There are plenty of opportunities ahead for me and the difficulty may be deciding which one to choose!”

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

Talk to us

More in Local News

911 received multiple calls reporting a fire at Marie Anne Terrace apartments early Monday morning, Feb. 6, 2023 in Everett, Washington. There were no injuries or fatalities. (Everett Fire Department)
Fire damages Everett apartments, displaces 10

The fire at the Marie Anne Terrace apartments Monday night displaced four families and caused extensive property damage.

A rack with cards bettors can use to choose their own numbers to purchase lottery ticket on a counter at a market. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)
Been to Auburn lately? That’s where $754M Powerball ticket was sold

This is only the second time a Powerball jackpot has been won in Washington.

Granite Falls
Man shot near Granite Falls; assailants at large

Two suspects fled after shooting a 33-year-old man in a motorhome Tuesday morning, according to police.

Photo by David Welton
A federal grant will help pay for the cost of adding a charging station to the Clinton ferry terminal.
Federal money to help electrify Clinton ferry dock

The Federal Transit Administration awarded state ferries a $4.9 million grant to help electrify the Mukilteo-Clinton route.

Community Transit is leasing a 60-foot articulated BYD battery electric bus this year as an early step in the zero emission planning process. (Community Transit)
Community Transit testing 60-foot electric bus

The agency leased the BYD K11M for $132,000 this year as the first step in its zero-emission planning process.

Angelica Montanari and daughter Makena, 1, outside of the Community Health Center of Snohomish County Everett-Central Clinic on Thursday, Feb. 2, 2023. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Amid patient woes, CHC of Snohomish County staffers push for a union

Doctors and nurse practitioners are worried about providers being shut out from clinical decisions, which hurts patient care.

NO CAPTION. Logo to accompany news of education.
Public school enrollment still down, even as rural districts grow

Smaller districts in Snohomish County seem to be recovering more quickly — and gaining students — than their urban counterparts.

Snohomish home-invasion suspect had been released weeks earlier

Eleazar Cabrera, 33, is accused of breaking into a home and shooting a man three times. He has a lengthy rap sheet.

NO CAPTION NECESSARY: Logo for the Cornfield Report by Jerry Cornfield. 20200112
A holiday for Lunar New Year, a return of green and white license plates

It’s Day 29. Here’s what’s happening in the 2023 session of the Washington Legislature

Most Read