Jamie McLeod-Skinner and Rep. Kurt Schrader are vying for the Democratic nomination in Oregon’s 5th Congressional District. (Campaign photos)
Days before President Joe Biden endorsed Rep. Kurt Schrader for re-election, local Democratic officials sent national Democrats a very different message.
Biden, in a statement last weekend announcing his endorsement, said he didn’t always agree with Schrader, but that the seven-term congressman was there for him when it mattered and helped pass much of Biden’s agenda, such as a $1.2 trillion federal infrastructure package.
Biden and national organizations including the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and Center Forward, a political action committee primarily funded by the pharmaceutical industry that supports centrist Democrats, bet that Schrader is the best candidate to win the redrawn 5th Congressional District, which stretches from the suburbs of Portland across the Cascades to Bend.
On paper, it’s the most competitive congressional district in Oregon.
Local Democratic officials and activists in the 5th District don’t agree that Schrader is their party’s best chance. Earlier this spring, Democratic party committees in Clackamas, Deschutes, Linn and Marion counties broke with tradition and endorsed Jamie McLeod-Skinner, a consultant and emergency response coordinator from Terrebonne, north of Redmond.
They described their unprecedented act as a response to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee placing its thumb on the political scale for Schrader, who many voters in the redrawn district have never voted for before and don’t see as an incumbent.
Last week, local Democrats took another step. The chairs of the Clackamas, Deschutes and Marion County Democratic parties wrote to the national campaign committee, asking it to immediately stop campaigning for Schrader.
“We are working to elect a Congressmember who represents Oregon’s Democratic values,” they wrote. “Oregonians get to decide who will represent us.”
Money vs. volunteers
As an incumbent congressman in a competitive district, Schrader is part of the national Congressional committee’s “Frontline” list of vulnerable incumbents. The committee, funded in part by dues paid by Democratic members of Congress, pays for campaign staff and other resources in a handful of districts around the country.
“The DCCC’s core mission is to re-elect Democratic members like Congressman Schrader, who has been critical in advancing President Biden’s agenda – from fighting to lower the cost of health care and prescription drugs to protecting a woman’s right to choose,” regional spokeswoman Johanna Warshaw said.
Schrader also has his own campaign war chest. As of March 31, he had raised more than $2.1 million for his campaign, compared to about $550,000 raised by McLeod-Skinner. Several independent political action committees have also spent more than $500,000 to support Schrader.
The result, according to Democrats in the district, is that they get pro-Schrader mail most days and it’s just about impossible to watch TV for longer than a few minutes without seeing a Schrader ad.
The votes by county Democratic parties to endorse McLeod-Skinner didn’t come with an influx of cash. Instead, the parties provided people.
Jason Burge, chair of the Deschutes County Democratic Party, estimates that the party has about 200 volunteers knocking doors for McLeod-Skinner. He’s heard of a few paid staffers for Schrader doing the same, but he has yet to encounter any Schrader volunteers or even any Deschutes County voters who are enthusiastic about Schrader.
“There appears to be maybe two or three on Twitter, and I’m not sure how many of them actually live in the district,” he said. “I will let you know when I find one, but as of now, I have not met anyone here in Deschutes County, who has reached out to the party, or or someone we talked to at the door that is a strong supporter of Kurt Schrader.”
When Schrader visited Bend in early April, Burge said he didn’t know Schrader was in town until he saw the congressman post photos from private meetings on Twitter. Jan Lee, chairwoman of the Clackamas County Democratic Party, said the last time she remembers seeing Schrader speak with constituents was at least two years ago.
McLeod-Skinner, meanwhile, attends every monthly meeting of Clackamas County Democrats.
“It’s really hard for me because I was in the legislature with him and I liked working with him, but he doesn’t listen anymore,” Lee said.
Lee served a single term in the state House from 2001 to 2003. She was elected as a Republican, left the party a few months into her term and later registered as a Democrat to run for re-election. Schrader was a Democratic state representative from 1997 to 2003.
McLeod-Skinner has been endorsed by Our Revolution, a political action organization spun out of Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign. That group has almost 25,000 contacts in the district and has volunteers promoting McLeod-Skinner, political director Aaron Chapell said in a March interview.
“Progressives can’t beat corporations in the money game,” he said. “But we have people.”
A swing district
Schrader, the most conservative of Oregon’s Democratic delegation, has easily beaten back both progressive challengers and conservatives since his 2008 election to Congress. However, he’s been criticized frequently by more progressive Democrats for his ties to the pharmaceutical industry, for being one of only a few Democrats to vote against last year’s Covid relief plan and for comparing the impeachment of former President Donald Trump to a “lynching.”
Schrader maintains that he delivers results for his district. His campaign spokeswoman Deb Barnes said in an email that he partnered with the Biden administration, helping pass the Build Back Better Act. (The House passed a $1.75 trillion version of Biden’s social infrastructure plan after Schrader and a few other moderate Democrats succeeded in separating it from the bipartisan $1.2 trillion bill for physical infrastructure. The Senate has not yet taken up the Build Back Better Act.)
“The reason why he has won this competitive district time and time again is because he can bring everyone together – rural, urban and suburban –to find common ground and deliver wins that make a real difference in the lives of all Oregonians. And, the President endorsed him,” Barnes said.
Kathy Gordon, who was the co-district leader for the 38th Oregon House District in the Clackamas County Democratic Party before resigning over how the county party handled the endorsement process, agreed. Gordon, who now volunteers for the Schrader campaign, said she may not like every vote he takes, but she recognizes that the district is more conservative than some Democrats might believe.
“Some of the votes he takes we do not like, it’s because you have to make a deal,” she said. “You have to be able to work with people in order to get things done. And I believe that, I understand that and actually I applaud him for doing that.”
Republicans are watching the Democratic primary unfold with the hopes that the eventual nominee will be weakened. Five Republicans are running for the seat, but it’s essentially a race between former Happy Valley Mayor Lori Chavez-DeRemer and Deschutes County financier Jimmy Crumpacker, who ran in 2020 in the 2nd Congressional District.
Courtney Parella, a regional spokeswoman with the National Republican Congressional Committee, said the Democratic infighting proves the seat is up for grabs.
“This kind of disarray can only mean one thing: Democrats know this seat is in jeopardy,” she said. “While Democrats waste time fighting each other, voters are outright rejecting Democrats’ failed agenda of skyrocketing prices, rising crime and open borders.”
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