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Oregon race for Congress splits Cascades as well as partisan divide

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Oregon Capital Bureau

The race for Oregon’s 5th Congressional District seat will feature not only a partisan rift but a geographic split over which side of the Cascades will be home to a new U.S. House member.

Central Oregon’s Jamie McLeod-Skinner is the Democratic nominee for the 5th Congressional District in November.

Lori Chavez-DeRemer, the former mayor of Happy Valley in Clackamas County, near Portland, handily won the GOP primary.

Seven-term U.S. Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Canby, conceded the race Friday night following reports from the Associated Press calling the race 10 days after the March 17 primary deadline.

McLeod-Skinner becomes the first primary challenger in 42 years to knock off an incumbent member of Congress in a primary in Oregon. Then-political activist Ron Wyden beat U.S. Rep. Bob Duncan in the 1980 Democratic primary for the 3rd congressional district. Wyden is now a U.S. senator.

Schrader released a statement thanking his supporters for their work on the campaign and conceding to McLeod-Skinner without mentioning her name.

“I congratulate my opponent on her tireless efforts and successful primary campaign,” Schrader said. “It has been my honor to serve as Representative for Oregon’s 5th congressional district for these past 14 years.”

In a statement Friday, McLeod-Skinner thanked Schrader for his time in Congress and said the outcome was about “our ideas and confirmation of our values.”

Chavez-DeRemer is the Republican nominee, having won 48% of the vote in a five-way race, with Bend businessman Jimmy Crumpacker finishing second.

Schrader was concerned about the outcome of redistricting in 2022 when the 5th district’s radically redrawn boundaries left him with less than half of his current constituents. He briefly considered running in the new, neighboring 6th Congressional District, but several Democrats had already jumped into that race, which was won by Rep. Andrea Salinas, D-Lake Oswego.

Schrader chose to run in a district with a lot of unfamiliar political turf.

“It is what it is,” Schrader said in a March interview.

The realigned 5th district stretches from Portland, across the Cascades, and into Deschutes County. It has a 6% Democratic voter tilt, according to the Cook Political Report. That is the smallest gap of Oregon’s six congressional districts.

Both 5th district candidates live just outside the district. McLeod-Skinner’s home is in a portion of Crooked River Ranch in Jefferson County. Chavez-Deremer’s residence is just beyond the northern boundary of the 5th district in Clackamas County.

The U.S. Constitution does not require U.S. House members to live in their districts, just in the same state.

In the Democratic primary, Schrader cast himself as a centrist in a party that is moving to the left. He is pro-choice and was endorsed by the Planned Parenthood Action Fund. With a narrow majority in the U.S. House, Schrader was endorsed by both President Joe Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

McLeod Skinner hammered at Schrader for being one of only two Democrats to initially vote against Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill. She frequently referenced Schrader’s vote against allowing Medicare to negotiate lower prescription drug prices, which she tied to large campaign contributions to Schrader by the pharmaceutical industry.

Election results were delayed more than a week by defective ballots printed by a Bend company for use in Clackamas County. Tens of thousands of ballots were printed with blurry bar codes, requiring them to be hand duplicated under the watch of bipartisan observers.

Clackamas County is not only the state’s third most populous, but 45% of Democrats in the 5th district live in the county.

McLeod-Skinner had jumped out to a huge lead of 60% when the first vote totals were announced at 8 p,m. on May 17. But it quickly became apparent that the totals included no votes from Clackamas County.

As vote counts have dribbled in over the days since, Schrader is leading in the county, but at a margin that increasingly indicated he could not make up the gap with McLeod-Skinner when all the votes were eventually counted.

McLeod-Skinner’s victory was her first win in three major underdog political races since 2018.

She ran against U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River, in 2018 in the heavily Republican 2nd Congressional District that at the time included Bend and portions of Deschutes County. After an energetic campaign crisscrossing the vast district, McLeod-Skinner lost to Walden but held him to his lowest vote percentage in 20 years.

McLeod-Skinner ran for secretary of state in 2020 but was overshadowed by a Portland-area political heavyweight match in which former state senator Shemia Fagan defeated former state senator Mark Hass, with McLeod-Skinner coming in third.

Chavez-DeRemer is a staunch conservative, who is backed by a GOP drive to elect Republican women, led by U.S. Rep Elise Stefanik, R-NY, the chair of the House Republican Conference, the third-highest position within the GOP’s U.S. House power structure.

The defeat of Schrader will likely embolden Republicans to put more resources into flipping the seat.

But Kyle Kondik, a lead analyst on congressional races at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said in March that it would be a tough seat for Republicans to win.

“Democrats re-drew the Oregon congressional map with an eye on winning five of the six seats,” Kondik said.

McLeod-Skinner is more liberal than Schrader, which could be a liability in the general election for a mostly centrist district.

But Kondik said that could be balanced out by the closed Republican primary choosing a conservative ally of House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, D-Calif., who has close ties with former President Donald Trump. DeRemer’s ties to Stefanik, who won her position in the House after the conference dumped U.S. Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyoming, over her vote to impeach Trump for his role in the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. That connection could make the GOP candidate a tough sell to moderates.

Kondik said history was against Republicans. The party wins the perennially Republican 2nd district in Eastern and Central Oregon. But it hasn’t won a second seat since 1994. Even then, the win by Yamhill County native Jim Bunn in the 5th district lasted only one term before Democrats flipped the seat back to their column.

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