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Former GOP Rep. George Nethercutt, who defeated House Speaker Tom Foley in 1994, dies at 79

SEATTLE (AP) — Former U.S. Rep. George Nethercutt, who was a Spokane lawyer with little political experience when he ousted Democratic Speaker of the House Tom Foley as part of a stunning GOP wave that shifted national politics to the right in 1994, has died. He was 79.

Nethercutt died Friday near Denver of progressive supranuclear palsy, a rare, neurodegenerative brain disease, his son said in an email Monday.

“He lived a life based in faith, family, community, and service, never sacrificing his principles as a statesman,” Elliott Nethercutt wrote.

The 1994 midterm elections, which came halfway through President Bill Clinton’s first term, were a resounding victory for Republicans, who won control of both houses of Congress for the first time since the early 1950s.

Nethercutt was the chairman of the Spokane County Republican Party and had served in the 1970s as chief of staff to Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens but had not run for office before challenging Foley.

Foley had represented the district for 30 years — the last five as speaker of the House. Nethercutt’s campaign ads focused on Foley’s opposition to term limits and pointed out that Foley had been in office since “Bonanza” was the top show on television.

Foley was the first speaker to lose a reelection bid since 1860.

Nethercutt joined other 1994 GOP candidates in signing the Contract With America, a list of conservative priorities promoted by Rep. Newt Gingrich and others. Among those priorities was adopting term limits; Nethercutt said he’d serve no more than three terms but broke that promise and served five before he gave up the seat to make an unsuccessful run against Democratic Sen. Patty Murray in 2004.

“George Nethercutt was a giant amongst men who served the people of Eastern Washington with honor and patriotism for a decade,” Republican Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, who now holds Nethercutt’s former seat, said in a Facebook post. “George was a man of character who led with kindness and conviction, and he was a person I proudly looked up to long before the day I was sworn in to represent the Fifth District we shared such a love for.”

Among his priorities in office were finding new international markets for farm products from eastern Washington, securing federal money for Fairchild Air Force Base, and supporting research grants to Washington State University.

Like many other Republicans elected in the 1994 wave, he had a conservative voting record and supported impeaching Clinton for lying about his affair with Monica Lewinsky.

He became a lobbyist following his tenure in Congress and worked with his George Nethercutt Foundation, which advanced civics education through scholarships, competitions and educational trips to Washington.

Nethercutt attended memorial services for Foley when he died in 2013, and two years ago, he joined the advisory board of Washington State University’s Thomas S. Foley Institute for Public Policy and Public Service.

He also established a fund at the university to create the George Nethercutt Endowed Lecture Series on Civic Engagement.

“Since 2008, my foundation has promoted civic education among students, so they are prepared to engage with our democratic system — a system that depends on the participation of informed citizens, open dialogue, and compromise to function properly,” Nethercutt said at the time.

Nethercutt was born in Spokane in 1944 and graduated from Washington State University before graduating from Gonzaga University School of Law in 1971. As a law school student, he briefly clerked for Foley’s father, Ralph Foley, who was a Spokane County Superior Court judge.

Nethercutt is survived by his wife, Mary Beth Nethercutt, whom he married in 1977; two children, Meredith Nethercutt Krisher and Elliott Nethercutt; sister Nancy Nethercutt Gustafson; brother John Irving Nethercutt; and granddaughter Holly Beth Krisher.

Gene Johnson, The Associated Press