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!”