The Blue Dog Democrats in Congress for years have attached themselves to a piece of hard political logic: If you run toward the center, instead of toward the left, you’ll pick up more votes in districts considered competitive between Republicans and Democrats.
That idea, accepted and rejected with equal fervor in various parts of American politics, soon will receive an almost perfect field test in Oregon, in the revised fifth congressional district.
The Oregon fifth, which in its old iterations - it was redistricted last year for the coming decade - elected Democrat Kurt Schrader to the U.S. House seven times, has been a politically marginal district. It has leaned Democratic throughout that time, but only barely; a Republican win there never has been out of the question, and Democrats cannot take it for granted.
The largest single population center of both the old and new fifth is Clackamas County, which itself is a political battleground. While the other two big counties of the Portland metro area (Multnomah and Washington) are solidly Democratic, Clackamas edges a little blue but wanders all over the partisan map. It voted for Democrats for president and the U.S. Senate consistently over the last decade, but while supporting Schrader each time, voters denied support several times to fellow Democrat Earl Blumenauer in the slice of the county that was in District 3. And remember that Clackamas voted Republican for governor in 2014, 2016 and 2018.
Its state legislative delegation is split too. Currently, it has four Democratic and five Republican state senators, and nine Democratic and three Republican state representatives.
Schrader, whose base in Clackamas reaches back to his state legislative days, has done consistently well there. While losing overall this season’s district five Democratic primary contest to Jamie McLeod-Skinner, he still retained Clackamas (52.6 percent to 46.8 percent).
He had other advantages, including not only the usual boost from incumbency and an endorsement from President Joe Biden, but raised more than three times as much money as McLeod-Skinner.
His loss could be attributed partly to the redistricting change in the district, which sliced off most of his old territory to the west (the Salem-Keizer area and Polk, Lincoln and Tillamook counties) and added lands east of the Cascades, in the Bend-Redmond area, where he hadn’t run before and where his opponent already had a political base.
But the in-party revolt in the Democratic base was primarily against Schrader’s positioning as a blue dog - a relatively conservative Democrat. (This is not just an ideological label but also a formal caucus group in the U.S. House.) The irritation grew with Schrader votes on pandemic policy, regulation of drugs and several fiscal bills, and his description of the second impeachment of Donald Trump as “a lynching” (though later he voted in favor); it was exemplified after the primary with his vote against a gun control measure passed by the U.S. House.
All of this hurt Schrader in the primary, but might it have positioned him better than McLeod-Skinner in the general election?
That upcoming contest, between McLeod-Skinner and Republican Lori Chavez-DeRemer, looks competitive. The national Cook Political Report, which earlier estimated the race as “leans Democratic,” has been shifted to “toss-up.”
For now, “leans Democratic” - a small advantage in that direction - actually seems the clearest evaluation.
The new district 5 has a small built-in Democratic tilt. The much-used Dave’s Redistricting site estimates the Democratic vote in the district at six percent higher, over the last three general elections, than Republican (50.6 percent to 44.6 percent). The large Deschutes County vote, strongly Republican a couple of decades ago, now tilts Democratic, and McLeod-Skinner has been building her base effectively there; her big win in the Bend area gave her the margin she needed to beat Schrader. (She lives in rural Jefferson County.) Her campaign probably has a burst of energy from the upset in the primary.
If she has an edge, though, it’s not large. Chevez-DeRemer is an experienced candidate too, a candidate for the Oregon House in 2018 (she lost to Democrat Janelle Bynum) and served as mayor of Happy Valley city from 2010 to 2015. She too had a competitive primary and won it convincingly. Her campaign will be well funded. But she also has a string of stances and connections - on abortion, health care and the 2020 presidential election among others - that Democrats already have signaled they can hit.
This fall’s election in the fifth, then, will pit a Democrat and a Republican each from what roughly passes for the center of gravity in their parties. That will amount to a direct choice between two ways of representing the new Oregon fifth, and a serious fight lies ahead.