Randy Stapilus: With the Blue Dog out, what's next for the 5th?

##Map: Creative Commons/Wikipedia
##Map: Creative Commons/Wikipedia

For years, the Blue Dog Democrats in Congress 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 state’s revised 5th Congressional District.

The Oregon 5th, which in its old iterations elected Democrat Kurt Schrader to the U.S. House seven times, has been a politically marginal district.

It has leaned Democratic, but only barely. So a Republican win there never has been out of the question.

Its boundaries were redrawn last year for the coming decade. However, it still leans only marginally Democratic.

Clackamas County, itself a political battleground, was the largest single population center in the old 5th. And it retains that distinction in the new 5th.

The other two big counties in the Portland Metro Area, Multnomah and Washington, are solidly Democratic. Clackamas edges a little blue, but wanders all over the partisan map.

It has 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 assigned to his 3rd Congressional District. In addition, Clackamas voted Republican for governor in 2014, 2016 and 2018.

The county’s 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 own legislative days, has done consistently well there. While losing overall this season’s primary contest to Jamie McLeod-Skinner, he still carried Clackamas 52.6% to 46.8%.

He had other advantages, including not only the usual boost from incumbency, but also an endorsement from President Joe Biden and three times as much money as McLeod-Skinner.

His loss could be attributed partly to redistricting, which sliced off most of his old territory to the west — the Salem-Keizer area and Polk, Lincoln and Tillamook counties — while adding land east of the Cascades where he hadn’t run before — in the Bend-Redmond area, where McLeod-Skinner already held a solid position.

But the in-party revolt in the Democratic base stemmed primarily from Schrader’s positioning as a Blue Dog — a relatively conservative Democrat. And note, this is not just an ideological label, but also a formal caucus group in the U.S. House.

The irritation grew with Schrader’s votes on pandemic policy, regulation of drugs and several fiscal bills — that and his characterization of the second impeachment of Donald Trump as “a lynching,” though he ultimately voted in favor. It was exemplified after the primary with his vote against a gun control measure passed by the House.

While this hurt Schrader in the primary, 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 shifted it to “toss-up.”

For now, “leans Democratic” — a small advantage in that direction — actually seems the clearest evaluation.

The new 5th Congressional District has a small built-in Democratic tilt. The much-used Dave’s Redistricting site estimates the Democratic vote in the district at 6 percentage points higher over the last three general elections than the Republican vote, or 50.6% to 44.6%.

The large Deschutes County vote, strongly Republican a couple of decades ago, now tilts Democratic.

McLeod-Skinner, who makes her home in neighboring Jefferson County, has been building her base effectively there. In fact, her big win in the Bend area gave her the margin she needed to beat Schrader.

Her campaign probably has a burst of energy from its upset win in the primary. If she has an edge, though, it’s not large.

Chavez-DeRemer is an experienced candidate. She ran for the Oregon House in 2018, losing to Democrat Janelle Bynum, and served as mayor of Happy Valley city from 2010 to 2015.

She, too, had a competitive primary. She won it convincingly and her campaign will be well funded.

But she also has a string of stances — on abortion, health care and the 2020 presidential election, among others — posing inviting targets for Democrats.

This fall’s election in the 5th, then, will pit a Democrat and a Republican each representing what passes for the center of gravity in their parties. That will amount to a direct choice between two ways of representing the new Oregon district, suggesting a serious fight lies ahead.

Guest writer Randy Stapilus is a former reporter and editor who has turned to writing and publishing books from Carlton. He has devoted his career to covering politics and government in Oregon, Washington and Idaho. In addition to publishing books through the Ridenbaugh Press, he maintains a blog at www.ridenbaugh.com. He also continues to write for various news publications, including the Oregon Capital Chronicle, where this piece originally appeared. He can be reached at stapilus@ridenbaugh.com. 



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