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Democrats brace for uncertain House primary in Oregon

Progressives are putting moderate Democrats on defense in a wild-card House race in Oregon that has drawn the focus of President Biden and other high-profile party members.  

Centrist Democrats have coalesced around Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.) over Jamie McLeod-Skinner in what was supposed to be an easy reelection. But the left’s quiet effort to paint Schrader as an opponent of Biden has made things harder for moderates, who are now scrambling to get Schrader to victory. 

Some are warning about a bigger power shake-up if he comes up short. 

“If Congressman Schrader loses in the primary, we will lose the seat in the general and lose the House,” said Kathy Gordon, a former Clackamas County Democrats officer who resigned after her county party endorsed McLeod-Skinner. “I want to make sure our congressional seat remains in the ‘D’ column.” 

Democratic leaders like Biden and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who both endorsed the seven-term lawmaker, view him as a reliable ally for a middle-ground approach, where progressives see an obstructionist. 

While their effort to oust him has been more muted than highly nationalized contests, left-wing lawmakers and activists have quietly worked to build up McLeod-Skinner in what many expect to be a close race in a newly redrawn district.  

“Families in Oregon’s 5th District deserve a Democrat who will lift up their voices in Congress, fight for prescription drug coverage for seniors, and tackle the climate crisis,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), one of McLeod-Skinner’s highest-profile backers. 

On paper, what irks progressives about Schrader pleases moderates. He’s a prominent member of the Blue Dog Coalition, has criticized too much social spending, doesn’t rely on small-dollar donations and has even been to the right of Biden on issues like a $15 minimum wage.  

During negotiations around Biden’s Build Back Better agenda, he advocated against including the package alongside a smaller infrastructure bill — a point progressives have homed in on in the run-up to the election.  

“Kurt Schrader betrayed working Oregonians when he voted against lower drug prices and blocked Build Back Better,” McLeod-Skinner told The Hill on Monday afternoon.

A source inside her campaign echoed that sentiment. 

“There’s this local frustration and anger that went to Jamie and said, ‘Can you run, because we can’t back this guy who won’t support Biden,’ ” said the source.  

“She’s not running around being like ‘defund [the police],’ she’s running around being like, ‘We should vote for Biden’s agenda and do something.’ ”

McLeod-Skinner’s camp has sought to position Schrader as too cozy to the pharmaceutical industry by accepting campaign contributions from drug companies and other corporations, a big no-no in progressive circles. According to data collected by OpenSecrets.org, Schrader takes in more PAC funding than any other House Democrat. 

“Schrader’s Big Pharma donors are repaying him for his service by spending millions to keep Schrader in office,” McLeod-Skinner said.  

That aspect of his record is raising some questions now, with many progressives believing those funding sources and bucking Biden’s own legislative goals should be a non-starter when up for reelection.  

“Just strategically, I don’t get how you can give someone a carrot instead of a stick when they break up your whole agenda,” said the source close to McLeod-Skinner. “We have nothing to run on in the midterms because he blocked everything but the infrastructure bill.” 

While Schrader has Pelosi’s full blessing, he has spoken critically of the top House Democrat in the recent past, according to an excerpt in a newly published book, “This Will Not Pass,” by New York Times reporters Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns. In it, Schrader called Pelosi a “truly a terrible person” to a group of donors during the Build Back Better and infrastructure talks. The passage was highlighted by The Intercept.

There are other indications the Oregon primary could complicate the narrative that things look safe for Schrader. The Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan election guidebook, published a new analysis last week showing voters moving away from him, as well as from another moderate, Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas). The report cites “multiple sources familiar with new polling data” that shows Schrader and Cuellar “now trailing progressive opponents” in their upcoming races.  

Moderates have a lot at stake. As the party continues to define its direction before November, some believe centrists are winning over progressives. A Schrader victory would theoretically give them a further jolt. 

A handful of lawmakers like Schrader have shown signs of their coalition’s success since Biden took office, with his flank winning on several policy strategies like separating the costly Build Back Better package from the infrastructure plan.  

The president has also helped in part of that effort. Biden has made it clear he thinks Democrats need to tack toward the center ahead of the fall, calculating what to promote and downplay from the executive branch. His endorsement of Schrader was part of a broader attempt to maintain relationships with lawmakers whose support he needs to pass his agenda, according to a Biden adviser who spoke on the condition of anonymity.  

Beyond policy, centrists believe their argument that progressives can’t win as well in swingier areas has been powerful when presenting voters with GOP control of the House as the alternative.   

Democrats in that camp, as well as some Republicans, believe Schrader’s seat resembles a battleground. While Republicans hope to switch it to their control, moderate Democrats say Schrader is the safer option if it’s purple due to its newly redrawn status this cycle.  

Still, progressives hope to poke holes in those arguments and believe their support of McLeod-Skinner can revamp their reputation as a diverse, winning coalition, despite recent losses. McLeod-Skinner’s camp and allies count several areas where she has won in GOP precincts during her first bid in 2018, including Deschutes County, where she was the only Democrat in five decades to take the area that former President Trump also won.

“Voters,” the McLeod-Skinner campaign source argued, “actually want a working person who doesn’t seem bougie.” 

Tags Biden campaign Democrats Election House Nancy Pelosi Oregon primary Race

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