Dressed in a black jacket and plaid shirt coupled with a black U.S Air Force baseball cap, Marc Hennemann stood up during a Coupeville, Washington, town hall meeting to direct a question at Democratic Rep. Rick Larsen.
“Do you support President Obama’s military policy in the Middle East?”
The question was freighted with meaning: There was the Islamic State’s rise to power in Iraq, the civil war in Syria, the U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s air war in Yemen.
Hennemann remembers Larsen took a short pause before responding.
“That is a loaded question,” Larsen said, making the crowd break into laughter.
“But the direct answer to that question is that yes, yes, I do,” he answered.
That exchange, said Hennemann, an Air Force veteran and a Republican with a strong aversion to President Barack Obama’s policies in the Middle East, is what drove him to run in this election. “He knew it was a loaded question but he still went ahead and said, ‘Yes.’ It just made me realize that he is not as good as he thinks he is and I can beat him,” Hennemann explained.
Larsen has been representing Washington’s 2nd Congressional District, which covers Island and San Juan counties and the western ends of Snohomish, Skagit and Whatcom counties, since January 2001. He was born and raised in Washington state and feels a personal attachment to the state and district.
“I represent where I was born,” he said. “I don’t think that it is necessary to be born and raised to run in a district but it is certainly a factor.”
Hennemann, on the other hand, grew up in New York state, retired from the Air Force after 21 years and moved to Washington state to become a high school social studies teacher.
Larsen believes that he has a track record of getting things done. As an example, he spoke of his four-year fight, along with Washington state Sen. Patty Murray, to overturn a ban on Department of Veterans Affairs payments for in vitro fertilization. He also touts his co-sponsorship of bills with Republican members of Congress , including one that would expand sick leave benefits for veterans hired by the Federal Aviation Administration.
Hennemann, however, said such bills did too little to address a serious problem: veterans’ access to health care.
“The problem is that veterans are literally dying before they can get to health care,” he charged. His solution: legislation that would allow veterans to go to any doctor or any hospital and send the government the bill.
The two candidates also clash over what to do about an increase in destructive accidents caused by oil and coal trains passing through the district. Larsen says Congress has increased standards for rail cars that carry crude oil and has provided funds to local governments to prepare them to respond to rail disasters.
Hennemann has called for discouraging rail transport of fuel while encouraging a shift in transporting fuels to pipelines, something Larsen opposes.
The candidates also offer different visions of their priorities. Larsen said he would like to have the district become an example for battling climate change, while Hennemann would like to spend money on new highways and bridges without raising taxes on gasoline.
In the Aug. 2 primary, five candidates competed for the right to run in the general election. Larsen led that balloting, with 51.8 percent support, while Hennemann came in second, with 32.3 percent.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly described as polling data the results of the Aug. 2 primary and misspelled challenger Marc Hennemann’s surname.