Commentary

Oregon’s 5th Congressional District is gearing up to be competitive in 2024

July 24, 2023 5:23 am
U.S. Capitol

The race for Oregon’s 5th Congressional District is already heating up. (Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images)

Oregon’s 5th Congressional District is looking to be a closely-fought contest next year – both in the general election and its primary. 

And the Democratic primary election looks to be the least predictable of the two.

Voter registration in this district, anchored by Clackamas and Deschutes counties (home to about two-thirds of its voters) with slices of four others, leans Democratic by 5 percentage points. That’s enough to create a challenging environment for a Republican candidate. 

Incumbent Lori Chavez-DeRemer, is a Republican, a narrow winner in 2022, and she appears to have borne in mind since her swearing-in the problems emerging in the next campaign. She is preparing thoroughly for her 2024 campaign for re-election, so far raising a solid $636,051. National Republicans, too, see this as an important battleground seat.

Independent national prognosticators have noted the race as a partisan toss-up, provided Democrats can come up with a candidate who can mount a competitive campaign – and the party so far has produced three.

That in turn means the primary election next spring also will be competitive. 

Lesser-known candidates have and may continue to enter the contest; the filing period doesn’t open until Sept. 14. But the main contours of the Democratic field seem to be settling into place, with a potentially tight battle between three leading contenders. No massive philosophical differences seem to separate them; the differences involve geography, backing and types of support. 

The most recent entrant is the candidate who lost to Chavez-DeRemer by just 2 percentage points, the 2022 Democratic nominee Jamie McLeod-Skinner, a Terrebonne attorney; that loss came months after she won a tough primary campaign, dispatching Democratic incumbent Kurt Schrader. Through that cycle she built a strong campaign organization and was a strong fundraiser as well, outpacing DeRemer’s $2.6 million by a million more. (DeRemer did receive heavy outside support from Republican groups, however, which likely contributed to her win.) Worth noting: This is not McLeod-Skinner’s first loss: She came in third in the Democratic primary for secretary of state in 2020. Will Democrats want to give her another try when they have as options two other contenders who have repeatedly won offices in the area?

The Democrat with the longest political reach, is Lynn Peterson, now a major office-holder as chair of the Metro Council, elected by voters through the Multnomah-Washington-Clackamas county area. Her most recent races, in 2022 and 2018, both of which she won, were nonpartisan. Previously, she was an elected commission chair in Clackamas County, the 5th District’s largest, and she was elected to the Lake Oswego City Council. She entered politics through working with conservation groups, and retains strong ties there – as well as strong Democratic establishment ties. She likely will have strong fundraising abilities for the new campaign.

A question, however: Will the candidate most identified with the Portland metro area find acceptance in farther reaches of the district, notably Deschutes County, which has become a key element of Democratic base for the district?

The third candidate brings to the table strengths that collectively closely match those of her contenders. Janelle Bynum is a third-term state representative with a statewide profile – she was for a time a prospect for House speaker – and strong connections in Oregon politics, and to an extent beyond. 

She also brings an unusually pertinent credential: In two of her three races for the House, her Republican opposition was Chavez-DeRemer, and Bynum defeated her both times. Those races were competitive in a competitive district, and that history will be one of Bynum’s top talking points. Bynum seems well established in her home legislative district, but so far less known than the other two contenders outside of it.

Like the other two contenders, she’s well connected in Democratic circles, and also like them is unlikely to fall short of needed campaign funding. 

Taken as a whole, the three candidates have strengths and weaknesses that almost perfectly balance each other. 

MacLeod-Skinner won both of the big counties, Clackams and Deschutes, in 2022, though not by large margins. Chevez-DeRemer prevailed by keeping her losses there small enough and by winning very strongly in the district’s slices of Marion and Linn counties. A Democratic nominee will have to contend with that math. 

Prognosticators for the Oregon 5th will need some new emerging facts or conditions to budge the races here from toss-up for months to come. For now, this looks like the least predictable Democratic major office primary contest in years. 

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Randy Stapilus

Randy Stapilus has researched and written about Northwest politics and issues since 1976 for a long list of newspapers and other publications. A former newspaper reporter and editor, and more recently an author and book publisher, he lives in Carlton.

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