County Democrats mull new rules to endorse McLeod-Skinner in Congressional primary

Supporters described the move as a response to national Democrats putting a thumb on the scale for U.S. Rep. Kurt Schrader

By: - February 21, 2022 6:33 pm

Democrats in Linn and Deschutes counties are considering changing their rules to endorse Jamie McLeod-Skinner in the Democratic primary for Congress. (Campaign photo)

As Deschutes County Democrats met earlier this month, they heard a pitch from a campaign operative with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

The committee representative used the occasion to recruit volunteers for U.S. Rep. Kurt Schrader’s re-election campaign.

That rubbed Sid Snyder the wrong way. 

Schrader is an incumbent congressman, and one the national Democratic committee named to its “Frontline” list of vulnerable representatives Democrats need to win to maintain their majority in Congress. But the boundaries of Oregon’s 5th Congressional District shifted last year, and many Democratic voters will encounter Schrader’s name on a ballot for the first time in May. 

“To us, he’s not an incumbent and the fact that we have the 800-pound gorilla from Washington coming in and weighing in in our primary spurred some of us to say, ‘You know what, we need Deschutes County Democrat voices heard, not just Washington, D.C., Democrat voices heard,’” Snyder said. 

In a move that bucks party tradition, proposals are alive in at least two Oregon counties to back a candidate in the primary instead of staying neutral. Such an early endorsement, especially against a sitting Congressman, is a sign of growing frustrations with Washington politics and efforts to control local choices.

Under county party rules, Democrats wouldn’t pick a favorite in the primary, staying neutral and then backing the Democratic candidate in the fall. But Snyder was the first of several Deschutes County precinct committee persons to request a change so the local party could endorse a candidate in the congressional primary. 

A similar process is playing out in Linn County, which moved from the 4th Congressional District to the 5th following redistricting last year. The newly-formed 5th covers Deschutes, Linn, Marion and Clackamas counties and contains slivers of Washington, Multnomah and Jefferson counties. Party chairs in Marion and Clackamas counties didn’t respond to inquiries about whether similar efforts were proceeding in their counties. 

Precinct committee persons are elected local party officials who vote on party business and lead voter registration and turnout efforts at the local level. They will vote in Linn County on Tuesday and Deschutes County on Thursday whether to begin endorsing candidates in the congressional primary. 

If two-thirds of the precinct committee persons agree, they’ll consider endorsing, and progressive challenger Jamie McLeod-Skinner will likely win endorsements in both counties. 

McLeod-Skinner, a consultant and emergency response coordinator from Terrebonne, said that would send a clear message to national Democrats. 

“It would be a reflection on my commitment to Oregonians, the work we’ve done in the past, really building up healthier and more united communities,” she said. “It also makes a strong statement to the [DCCC], to fully recognize that the DCCC wants to have the newly drawn 5th go to a Democrat in the general but to really allow Oregonians to weigh in and decide in the primary.”

Parties and party leaders typically stay out of contested primaries, at least officially. Former President Barack Obama waited to endorse both Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden until after they sewed up their nominations for president, and Gov. Kate Brown has yet to endorse any candidates running to replace her. 

But when it comes to Congress, the national Congressional committee is all in on supporting current members of Congress. In 2019, the committee blacklisted every political consultant or firm that worked on primary challenges to Democratic incumbents – a controversial decision reversed in 2021. While Schrader receives money, volunteers and campaign staff from the committee during the primary, Democrats running in primaries for open seats in the 4th and 6th Congressional Districts are on their own. 

Communications officials with Schrader and the national Congressional committee didn’t respond to emails seeking interviews.

McLeod-Skinner said she reached out to the national committee last October and heard back that it was really for current members of Congress. Whether voters like Schrader or not, he’ll have the organization’s support, she was told. 

“They know he’s weak, and there’s a lot of nervousness around that,” she said. “And then because he’s a member of their organization, they have no choice. They are not in a position to vet who would be the best Democrat. They’ve just got to go with their members.”

McLeod-Skinner has been building a grassroots operation across Oregon since 2017, when she challenged then-U.S. Rep. Greg Walden in the 2nd Congressional District and logged tens of thousands of miles in a Jeep traversing the vast rural area and meeting with voters. While she lost to Walden, she performed better than any Democrat had and flipped Deschutes County.

I know this may sound provincial, maybe there's a small element of that, but we would rather choose our own congressperson than have it chosen for us in Washington, D.C.

– Deschutes County Democrat Sid Snyder

She stayed engaged in politics since then, running for secretary of state in 2020, stepping in as interim city manager in Talent after the small Jackson County city lost a third of its homes and businesses to the Almeda wildfire in 2020 and serving as an elected member of the Jefferson County Education Service District Board and appointed member of the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board. She also started a political action committee to recruit and mentor Democratic candidates in rural Oregon that has since gone dormant.

Snyder, a retired software engineer from Bend, said he thinks the Congressional  organizer working for Schrader’s campaign — a Rutgers alumnus who spent four years working on political campaigns in his home state of New Jersey before being assigned to Oregon’s 5th in January — has good intentions. He understands why the Congressional committee would assume that a sitting congressman has the best shot at winning in November. He just thinks they’re dead wrong. 

“Kurt Schrader in the old CD5 has underperformed in general elections and Jamie has overperformed whenever she has run,” he said. “Those of us who live, eat and breathe this district and central Oregon know this. And I know this may sound provincial, maybe there’s a small element of that, but we would rather choose our own congressperson than have it chosen for us in Washington, D.C.” 

Jason Burge, chairman of the Deschutes County Democratic Party, stressed that he and the other elected county party leaders aren’t leading the charge to change their rules or endorse McLeod-Skinner. They’re just responding to demands from the precinct committee persons who are closest to voters. 

He said he has spoken to Schrader’s campaign about the challenges Schrader would face running in Deschutes County because McLeod-Skinner has done a lot to support local campaigns and lead volunteers over the last two election cycles. 

“It was going to be incumbent upon his campaign to really get down here and introduce themselves to the voters here because Jamie is very well known and very well liked in this area, especially when talking about Democratic primaries,” he said. 

Deschutes County’s proposed rule change applies only to endorsements in the Congressional primary and not other races such as governor. The county party also typically endorses nominees in nonpartisan races and supports the winner of the Democratic primary in partisan races.

The rule change would require a two-thirds majority of those attending the meeting and would apply only to the county.

McLeod-Skinner and Schrader have each met with county party members previously and have been invited to join Thursday’s meeting or send in video messages of up to 10 minutes to make their case for endorsement if the party changes its rules. The county party would make its endorsement that night.

In Linn County, the  proposed rule change would allow the party to endorse in any race. If it passes, the party platform chairwoman Genny Lynch will immediately nominate McLeod-Skinner for endorsement, according to the meeting’s agenda. Anyone else can then nominate other candidates, and after debating, the precinct committee persons present will vote. A candidate would need votes from two-thirds of those present to receive an endorsement.

When the Linn County Democratic Party endorses candidates, it fully gets behind them , Taylor said. The party can send campaign mail, prepare voters’ guides, run text or phone bank campaigns and share information it gathered about voters. 

“There are multiple different data points which we can gather as the grassroots that folks that don’t necessarily live in this area or haven’t organized in this area in the past may not know,” he said. “We have access to the voter file, we have access to a lot of important data regarding our voters, our supporters.” 

If either or both county parties make an endorsement this week, it will come in time for McLeod-Skinner to list it in her statement for the Voters’ Pamphlet, the government-issued guide. The deadline for submissions is March 10. 

“If you’re running for the Democratic nomination and people see you’ve locked up multiple Democratic counties for a primary, that should carry some weight with voters,” Taylor said.

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Julia Shumway
Julia Shumway

Julia Shumway has reported on government and politics in Iowa and Nebraska, spent time at the Bend Bulletin and most recently was a legislative reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times in Phoenix. An award-winning journalist, Julia most recently reported on the tangled efforts to audit the presidential results in Arizona.