Congressional candidates need footing in reshaped districts

Politics

Kurt Schrader could run in the 5th as an incumbent or the new 6th District

Rep. Kurt Schrader of Oregon’s 5th Congressional District (Pamplin Media Group, file)

PORTLAND, Ore. (Portland Tribune) — If you are praying or just passing by the Our Lady of Sorrows on Woodstock Boulevard in Portland early next year, you will be standing in Oregon’s 3rd Congressional District.

You’ll also be in the 3rd district if you are buying a Slurpee or Lotto ticket at the 7-Eleven catty-corner across 52nd Avenue from the Roman Catholic church.

But cross either street to go over to the Ate-Oh-Ate Grill for a Kalua Pig Sandwich or Teriyaki Tofu, and you are in the 5th Congressional District.

The restaurant cooking “good grinds” with a name that is a play on the 808 area code in Hawaii is the starting point of Oregon’s most topographically unique new congressional district.

From Woodstock, the district sweeps south through suburbs of Clackamas County, skirts Salem, grabs Albany, curves just feet from central Corvallis before heading east to the Santiam Pass.

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Near Black Butte Ranch, it burst out of the east side of the Cascades, slicing off most of Redmond and Bend — sometimes darting west to push one side of a street into the 2nd Congressional District.

It ends its southward march with an Etch-a-Sketch pattern in Sunriver before making a hard western turn before hitting a dead-end near Waldo Lake.

Democrats who drew the maps that passed the Legislature on mostly party-line votes Sept. 27 say U.S. Highway 20 meets the state standard of drawing districts linked by transportation routes.

‘Santiam Pass seat’

The new district ensures that the increasingly Democratic Bend area is not left isolated amid the vast Republican-leaning 2nd Congressional District where it is now.

Republicans see two population blobs with a bottleneck at 4,817 feet in the Cascades. The route gets snow from early fall to late spring. Some refer to it as “the Santiam Pass seat.”

Former state Rep. Cheri Helt of Bend (Courtesy via Pamplin Media Group)

“You have the largest geographical barrier in our state dividing a district that is united only because of political desire,” said Cheri Helt, a former Republican state representative who lives in Bend. “When I was elected, the first thing my husband did was go out to get me new snow tires, a satellite phone and an avalanche beacon.”

The district’s borders are flawed, Helt said in an interview Friday. But … she may also run for the seat herself.

Helt is hardly alone. Former Happy Valley Mayor Lori Chavez-DeRemer announced she would run even before the new district boundaries were drawn. A Republican, she says she has raised $250,000 for the campaign through Sept. 1.

Democrats are also considering a bid.

Jamie McLeod-Skinner of Terrebonne said she is likely to make a run for the seat. She lost a 2018 bid for Congress and a 2020 primary for secretary of state. But both times she won Deschutes County, which makes up about a third of the over 700,000 people who live in the new district.

“I haven’t made a final decision, but I’m very seriously considering it,” McLeod-Skinner said Friday.

Milwaukie Mayor Mark Gamba registered a political action committee with the Federal Election Commission. The most recent report shows he has $10,000 on hand.

Changes in Central Oregon

While the design of the district is unique, it officially has an incumbent: U.S. Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Canby.

But the 5th district now represented by Schrader and the one that the new one that he is now assigned are very different pieces of Oregon.

The western edge of the current 5th district is the Oregon Coast, looking like a hammerhead on its side, stretching from Manzanita in Tillamook County down to just south of Yachats in Lincoln County. A thick horizontal corridor takes in Salem before widening north and south at Interstate 5 to take in Oregon City and Happy Valley in Clackamas County. With Oregon Route 22 as its southern border, the district stretches east until it dead-ends against the western border of the Warm Springs Reservation.

The new congressional map pulls the 5th district far to the east. Interstate 5 is the main western border instead of the Pacific Ocean. The northern part of the coastal areas was moved into the 1st Congressional District now held by U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Beaverton. The southern portions were moved into the 4th Congressional District of U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Springfield.

Oregon received a sixth district as a reward for its 10% population growth during the past decade. The Democratic mapmakers moved a large middle chunk of Schrader’s turf, including Salem, out of the 5th district. He’s also set to be the new incumbent for a district with about a third of its population on the other side of the Cascades in Bend and Redmond. It’s in the 2nd Congressional District held by U.S. Rep. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario.

Schrader’s political fate

The changes amputated much of Schrader’s electoral base west of Interstate 5, while taking a rump portion remaining in the middle and grafting on a major constituency on the other side of a mountain range.

Rep. Kurt Schrader of Oregon’s 5th Congressional District (Pamplin Media Group, file)

One option: Schrader lives in Canby, just barely outside of the 6th district. He could opt to run in the 6th district, leaving the 5th up for grabs. Under U.S. House is unique in its residency requirements. Unlike Legislature, representatives do not have to live in the district they represent. In reality, a permanent residence outside of a district is a political liability. But the constitutional quirk allows a candidate to run for the seat and then move if they win.

Molly Prescott, Schrader’s communications director, was succinct with a two-part response to a query on the congressman’s plans for 2022.

“His home is in Canby, which remains in Oregon’s 5th Congressional District,” Prescott said. “While I can confirm Rep. Schrader is running for Congress again, I have no further announcements at this time.”

If Schrader jumps to the 6th district race, he already has one announced opponent in the Democratic primary next May. State Rep. Andrea Salinas, D-Lake Oswego, was a co-chair of the House redistricting committee that helped draw the congressional lines. She announced soon after the special session for redistricting adjourned that she would seek the 6th Congressional District seat instead of running for re-election to the House.

If Schrader decides instead to run again in the 5th district seat, he’ll also likely face a primary challenge from progressives in the Democratic Party.

Schrader is the most moderate Democrat of the four incumbent Democrats in the Oregon delegation. All have announced they will seek re-election. Schrader alone was not endorsed by the AFL-CIO in the 2020 election. Most recently, he has been heavily criticized within his own party for siding with Republicans to kill a Biden-backed plan to control prescription drug prices.

It’s a record that has some Democrats saying Schrader needs to be replaced.

“Normally I wouldn’t consider challenging an incumbent Democrat,” said McLeod-Skinner. “However, with Kurt Schrader, I don’t have to make much of an argument to persuade a lot of people. There are Democrats across the state who are frustrated with him.”

A different view

The same thing that could be Schrader’s downfall is also a concern for McLeod-Skinner and Helt— being seen as too centrist in a political world that is increasingly pushing left and right.

Both are moderates in their party and the closed primary tends to bring out the most activist voters with a long list of litmus tests. The majority of voters in the district live on the western side of the Cascades.

“You would hope the candidates are the best choices, not who is wearing the brightest colored team jersey,” Helt said.

Helt and McLeod-Skinner both said that whoever their parties nominate, it should be someone from Central Oregon. “I think there is a real hunger for central Oregonians to feel a sense of presence and representation,” McLeod-Skinner said. “It’s a chance for a candidate with a different view of the state.”

Democrats and Republicans have time to ponder a run for the seat. Some are waiting until the district maps get beyond any possible legal challenges filed with the Oregon Supreme Court.

In addition to some potential candidates saying they may get in, others are adamantly saying they are out.

“I’m not interested,” said Rep. Shelly Boshart Davis, R-Albany. “Congress is in session in July. I farm first and foremost. I’m not interested in stepping away from that.”

She will likely run for the House again in 2022.

Even more succinct is Knute Buehler, the former Republican state representative from Bend who lost the 2018 race for governor and a 2020 primary for the 2nd Congressional District seat won by Bentz.

Asked if he was in or out on running for the realigned congressional seat, Buehler said: “Out.”

“Both political parties have lost their minds and are more interested in scoring points that producing wins for the American people,” he said.

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