Cash and distance in key Oregon Congressional race
Left vs. Not so left, Democrat vs. Republican, East vs. West.
The race for Oregon's 5th Congressional District has intra-party fights, partisan splits and a mountain range running through the middle.
U.S. Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Canby, saw the 5th Congressional District he has represented since winning the 2008 election make a seismic shift east under a redistricting plan for the 2022 election.
The district's western boundary moved from the Pacific Ocean to Interstate 5, while the eastern edge now jumps the Cascades at the Santiam Pass to latch onto the northern part of Deschutes County.
Less than half of the new 5th district's 706,209 residents are currently Schrader constituents. When he saw the new maps, Schrader was surprised, but has pushed ahead.
"It is what it is," he said in an interview Friday.
Schrader briefly weighed running for an adjacent seat in the new 6th Congressional District before settling to run in the 5th, where his home in Canby sits near the western boundary.
The result is a Democratic-leaning district that runs from the urban edges of south Portland to the high desert of Bend.
It's a mix that has some national political analysts saying that Oregon's two open congressional seats aren't the closest races on the ballot — it's Schrader's attempt to hold on to the seat in Congress.
Democrats hold a 222-212 majority in the U.S. House, with one vacancy. Republicans need to flip just five seats to take back control they lost in 2018.
Schrader is on the Republicans' priority political hit list. Early Republican sniping has kick-started the 2022 election.
"Kurt Schrader is a career politician who has left Oregon voters behind," said Courtney Parella, a spokeswoman for the National Republican Campaign Committee.
On Friday, Parella tweeted a photo of gas prices on a service station sign. "Thanks Rep. Schrader — Portland gas station charging nearly $6.30 a gallon for regular."
How vulnerable is Schrader? The Capitol Hill political handicappers differ.
The Cook Political Report rated U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Beaverton, in the 1st Congressional District and U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Portland in the 3rd Congressional District as "Solid Democrat" districts. U.S. Rep. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario, is rated as "Solid Republican."
The 4th district seat opened by the retirement of U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Springfield, and a brand new 6th Congressional awarded Oregon for its population growth are "Likely Democrat."
The 5th Congressional District — with Schrader — is "Leaning Democrat," the least secure rating besides 20 seats in the nation listed as "toss-ups."
But Kyle Kondik, a lead analyst on congressional races with another closely watched forecast at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said the threat to Schrader from Republicans is over-hyped.
"Democrats redrew the Oregon congressional map with an eye on winning five of the six seats," Kondik said.
But outside of the two heavily Democratic Portland-area seats and the one overwhelmingly Republican seat in eastern and central Oregon, nothing was "so overwhelmingly blue that Republicans cannot credibly target them."
Schrader brings the advantages of incumbency and $3.5 million in the bank at the end of the year to help him make his case. He also has the Three Rivers Leadership PAC with $108,173.
But if a large swath of Democrats have their way, Schrader won't be their party's candidate in the 5th District.
Democrat Jamie McLeod-Skinner of Terrebonne is running an insurgent campaign that has gained traction in the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. The Deschutes and Linn county Democratic parties broke with tradition to endorse her in the primary. So did former Gov. Barbara Roberts. The Working Families Party, a third party in Oregon, has endorsed McLeod-Skinner as well. She's raised over $200,000 as of Jan. 1.
"If the interest is keeping the seat blue for Democrats, then it's in the district's best interest to have someone who is actually blue," McLeod-Skinner said in an interview last week.
A veteran of uphill but unsuccessful bids for Congress and Secretary of State, McLeod-Skinner is an energetic campaigner whose primary strategy includes casting Schrader's financial advantage as a burden to be explained away.
As with most congressional incumbents, Schrader has received major support from businesses and lobbying groups — including the pharmaceutical industry, where Schrader's inherited wealth comes from.
"He's fought negotiating lower drug prices, raising the federal minimum wage, and forgiving debt for college loans," McLeod-Skinner said. "When he does vote with Democrats, it is often after working to water-down the original ideas. He needs to explain his positions."
Schrader said he welcomes McLeod-Skinner's bid, along with a Republican list of candidates that includes former Happy Valley Mayor Lori Chavez-DeRemer, Bend businessman Jimmy Crumpacker and orthopedic surgeon John di Paola of Wilsonville.
"It's a free country — anybody has the right to throw their hat into the ring," Schrader said.
Schrader has caused unhappiness among Democrats for some high-profile breaks with the party.
He was one of 15 House Democrats who did not vote for party leader U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-California, to resume her former seat as House speaker after Democrats won a majority in 2018. He was the last Oregon Democrat to support the first impeachment of then-President Donald Trump for his alleged efforts to sway Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to dig up dirt on Joe Biden in exchange for U.S. aid. Trump was impeached by the House, but found not guilty by the Senate in the constitutional version of a trial.
Schrader says he received high marks from groups such as Planned Parenthood and votes with President Biden about 96% of the time. He's part of the congressional "Problems Solvers Group," a bipartisan caucus of moderates seeking middle-ground solutions to issues in the highly partisan split on Capitol Hill.
Schrader lists several pieces of legislation that he introduced to fast-track generic medicines, lower drug prices, require pharmaceutical companies to be more transparent in their development costs, and allow a Medicaid drug rebate.
But Schrader said he was proud to not be in lockstep with any faction — a stance he believes voters support.
"I think people see that I am not 100% with any group," Schrader said.
Schrader says those who take the time to examine his record on social issues, labor, housing, veterans and child care will see a strong Democrat.
While McLeod-Skinner has motivated Democrats to get out and vote for a progressive in the primary, some worry that victory or defeat could spell trouble in November.
"If Schrader lost to a more left-wing alternative, that could have implications for the general election," Kondik said.
In a bit of irony, Schrader's position as an incumbent ensures him funds from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
With Oregon's closed primaries, voters could face a choice between a more liberal candidate like McLeod-Skinner and a Republican who backs former President Donald Trump.
Schrader says he's a mainstream leader who seeks to make laws, not political points. He's best for those who want to "make sure Democrats hold onto the seat." McLeod-Skinner said she would represent the values and desires of residents on both sides of the Santiam Pass.
"I don't think there's a better match," she said.
Primary challenges are frequent in politics — but rarely successful. The last insurgent win was in 1980 when now U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden beat incumbent U.S. Rep Bob Duncan for the Portland-area congressional seat.
If necessary, Schrader could spend his entire campaign war chest on the primary. Anything leftover is useless if he loses, while Democrats who sat out the primary will refill the coffers in time for the general election.
If he wins, Schrader will be able to use McLeod-Skinner's attempt to unseat him as evidence he's more moderate than his party label, while his opponents in the closed Republican primary will likely be pro-Trump conservatives whose politics may not play as well with a wider audience. About 40% of the voters in the 5th District are registered as Non-Affiliated Voters who can't take part in the May primaries.
The outcome in the curving, up-and-down district will be unknown until the May primary picks the two main candidates. The district is urban in Portland, suburban in Clackamas and Linn, then goes across Santiam Pass at over 4,000 feet to the high desert of northern Deschutes County.
It's a mashed-up spread of voters as well — 43% in Clackamas County, 25% in Deschutes County, 18% in Linn County, and around 7% each in Multnomah and Marion counties.
From his office 2,900 miles across the country at the University of Virginia political research center, Kondik mused a thought shared by many in Oregon: "It's going to be interesting to see what happens."
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