Defeat Of Oregon Progressive Raises Debate Over Electability

Jamie McLeod-Skinner’s loss in a House race deprived the left of a win in a swing district. But were her progressive views really to blame?
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The Democratic candidate’s defeat in the general election in Oregon’s 5th Congressional District was a double blow for progressives, at once helping give Republicans their razor-thin majority in the U.S. House of Representatives and also denying the left a chance to show that one of their own could prevail in a marginal seat after ousting a centrist incumbent in a primary.

Democrat Jamie McLeod-Skinner, a regional emergency response coordinator and attorney, lost to Republican Lori Chavez-DeRemer, the former mayor of Happy Valley, in the Nov. 8 election.

McLeod-Skinner had become the Democratic nominee after ousting Rep. Kurt Schrader, a business-friendly centrist, in the state’s closed primary election in May.

McLeod-Skinner’s biggest gripes against Schrader were that he was too oppositional to President Joe Biden and too cozy with corporate America.

The Democratic establishment “always says, ‘You can beat these shithead Dems like Schrader, but then you lose us the seat,’” a progressive strategist, who was active in a coalition working on McLeod-Skinner’s behalf, told HuffPost in September.

A win for McLeod-Skinner gave progressives a chance to “put a lie to that,” said the strategist, who requested anonymity to speak freely. “If we can pull it off, it’s sort of the perfect one.”

Democratic House candidate Jamie McLeod-Skinner addresses supporters in Bend, Oregon, on election night. She faults Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.) for failing to back her in the general election after defeating him in the primary.
Democratic House candidate Jamie McLeod-Skinner addresses supporters in Bend, Oregon, on election night. She faults Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.) for failing to back her in the general election after defeating him in the primary.
Andy Nelson/Associated Press

Progressives didn’t pull it off. The Associated Press declared Chavez-DeRemer the winner on Nov. 13. She ended up edging out McLeod-Skinner by just over 2 percentage points.

McLeod-Skinner now joins a short list of swing-district progressive candidates to prevail against establishment favorites in contentious Democratic primaries ― and then lose a general-election bid to a Republican. Other recent examples are Kara Eastman in Nebraska, Dana Balter in New York and Randy Bryce in Wisconsin.

“Regardless of why this happened, the reality is that Republicans and Democrats will leverage this against progressives,” said Christopher McKnight Nichols, a history professor at Ohio State University who analyzes Oregon politics. “Both moderate Democrats and Republicans in the Pacific Northwest looking to this race now have ammunition to argue that progressives can’t win in the way that they purport.”

Narratives aside, though, the question of why McLeod-Skinner lost to Chavez-DeRemer is complicated.

“Ultimately this comes down to who had the money to get their message out and who had the money to counterattack.”

- Leah Greenberg, Indivisible Project

Moderates, who maintain that Schrader or another centrist would have had an easier time against Chavez-DeRemer, and progressives, who note that McLeod-Skinner got limited help from Democratic super PACs, have arguments in their favor.

“While there are no guarantees that Schrader, a moderate incumbent, would have won, it seems likely that he would have,” said Matt Bennett, executive vice president of the centrist group Third Way.

Bennett noted that virtually all non-incumbent progressive candidates who won their House races this year did so in “navy blue,” or heavily Democratic, districts. He cited the cases of Reps.-elect Greg Casar (Texas), Jazmine Crockett (Texas), Summer Lee (Pa.), Jonathan Jackson (Ill.) and Delia Ramirez (Ill.).

“The implications therefore are clear as a bell: If the left is interested in winning elections and creating majorities, they will not run against Democrats like Kurt Schrader, a strong supporter of President Biden, in places where they simply cannot win,” he said.

At the same time, progressives note that, among other confounding factors, McLeod-Skinner did not get the support of House Democrats’ main super PAC, the House Majority PAC. House Republicans’ super PAC, the Congressional Leadership Fund, by contrast, spent nearly $7 million in the race, contributing to a massive spending advantage for Chavez-DeRemer.

“Ultimately this comes down to who had the money to get their message out and who had the money to counterattack,” said Leah Greenberg, co-founder of Indivisible Project, whose political arm endorsed McLeod-Skinner in the primary. (Indivisible Action, the political group, funded a small direct-mail initiative for McLeod-Skinner in the general election.)

“We didn’t have a fair test because in a fair test, we’d actually have a candidate who was resourced to run the race through the finish line,” she added.

Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.) lost the support of influential local Democrats for breaking with President Joe Biden on a handful of priorities.
Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.) lost the support of influential local Democrats for breaking with President Joe Biden on a handful of priorities.
Tom Williams/Getty Images

A Flawed Incumbent Turned Sore Loser

Seeking a seventh term in Congress in 2020, Schrader faced a typically weak Republican opponent. The GOP nominee, Amy Ryan Courser, spent slightly more than one-tenth of what he spent.

Still, Schrader received 52% of the vote, defeating Courser by less than 7 percentage points. Biden, by contrast, won 53.6% of the vote in Schrader’s district, besting then-President Donald Trump there by nearly 10 points.

Despite this discrepancy, Schrader joined other moderate Democrats in blaming progressive rhetoric and policies for the party’s lackluster performance in House elections in 2020.

“When [voters] see the far left that gets all the news media attention, they get scared,” he told The Washington Post. “They’re very afraid that this will become a super-nanny state, and their ability to do things on their own is going to be taken away.”

Schrader went on to become one of the biggest dissenters in the House Democratic Caucus, playing an oppositional role more common among Democrats in Republican-leaning districts.

He likened the speedy House impeachment of Trump following the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol to a “lynching” before walking that comment back and apologizing. He was one of only two Democrats to vote against the House’s version of the American Rescue Plan Act (Biden’s COVID-19 relief bill), though he went on to approve the version sent back by the Senate.

And most significant, Schrader was one of three Democrats to vote in committee against legislation empowering Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices for seniors.

Although the legislation was already a weaker version of what House Democrats passed in 2019, Democratic leaders had to water down the bill further to mollify Schrader, an heir to the Pfizer fortune and top recipient of pharmaceutical industry PAC money, and a handful of like-minded Democrats. Among other concessions, the compromise that became law reduced the roster of drugs subject to potential negotiation and postponed the effective date of the changes to 2026.

“He stood with Pharma against the will of voters who overwhelmingly want action, and the most effective possible action taken, to lower prescription drug prices,” David Mitchell, president of the group Patients for Affordable Drugs, told HuffPost in April.

“I was better positioned to win the general than Schrader, given his past underperformance.”

- Jamie McLeod-Skinner, Democratic candidate for Congress

To Schrader’s critics on the left, the lack of a political rationale for his decisions ― a point of contrast with, say, West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin’s defense of the coal industry ― was especially galling. The vast majority of the public supports letting Medicare negotiate lower prescription drug prices for seniors, which is why it appears so frequently in vulnerable Democrats’ campaign ads.

Due to redistricting, Schrader had not represented much of Oregon’s new 5th Congressional District, which went south and southeast from Portland rather than south and west along the coast.

The seat in which Schrader would have to run for reelection was less Democratic. Biden carried the new district by 8.8 points rather than the 9.8 points he’d carried the older district by.

But before Schrader would face off against any Republican, he had to contend with a restive contingent of progressives in the Portland suburbs and the greater Bend area, many of whom were unfamiliar with him.

McLeod-Skinner had a following in Deschutes County, where Bend is located, thanks to her 2018 run for Congress and 2020 run for secretary of state. She capitalized on local discontent ― and lack of familiarity ― with Schrader, picking up the support of four county Democratic parties and numerous labor unions.

Asked to explain the local upswell against Schrader, Judy Stiegler, a former Democratic state representative from Bend, told HuffPost a year ago, “It isn’t just that he is more moderate, but he has been oppositional” to key elements of Biden’s agenda.

Schrader nonetheless had every advantage imaginable against McLeod-Skinner, including the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s expertise and the support of Biden, who made Schrader his first endorsement of the cycle. Schrader spent more than five times what McLeod-Skinner spent and got an additional boost from super PACs that spent nearly $2 million on his behalf.

When the mid-May primary came around, Chavez-DeRemer clinched the Republican nomination before McLeod-Skinner’s race against Schrader was called.

Responding to her win, Republican TV commentator Rebecca Tweed said, “If it’s between her and Congressman Schrader, Lori Chavez-DeRemer has a better chance of taking that seat.”

McLeod-Skinner ended up defeating Schrader by nearly 10 percentage points in the primary.

Although Tweed was relatively vague when explaining why she thought McLeod-Skinner would be a more formidable opponent than Schrader, McLeod-Skinner and her allies point to, among other things, his poor showing in the primary as evidence of his weakness as a campaigner.

“I was better positioned to win the general than Schrader, given his past underperformance … and polling showed his high unfavorables, based on his record and broken relationships,” McLeod-Skinner told HuffPost in a lengthy email response to questions about the election results.

McLeod-Skinner and her allies also lament that Schrader sought to turn his claims that McLeod-Skinner would be less competitive in a general election into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Schrader never endorsed McLeod-Skinner, and he cast doubt on her electability shortly after losing the primary, predicting in a television interview that “the red wave begins in Oregon ― Oregon’s 5th District.”

Days before the general election, he told The Washington Post he was still undecided between the two candidates.

In Oregon’s 4th Congressional District, by contrast, the more progressive primary candidate, Doyle Canning, united behind Democratic nominee Val Hoyle, who is now the congresswoman-elect, McLeod-Skinner noted.

“The inability to pivot from a competitive primary to a unified general election cost Democrats the presidency in 2016 and may have cost Democrats OR-05 in 2022,” McLeod-Skinner wrote to HuffPost.

A fire burns outside the federal courthouse in Portland in August 2020. Backlash to civil unrest in the city was a political obstacle for many Oregon Democrats this election cycle.
A fire burns outside the federal courthouse in Portland in August 2020. Backlash to civil unrest in the city was a political obstacle for many Oregon Democrats this election cycle.
Noah Berger/Associated Press

Left-Wing Associations

Of course, Schrader’s dissension was not the only reason that McLeod-Skinner failed to win over the most conservative elements of the Democratic coalition.

In other cases, stakeholders were simply more wary of her progressive views than they had been of Schrader’s.

Local 29, a regional branch of the Iron Workers union, was the only labor union to endorse Chavez-DeRemer. The union disapproved of McLeod-Skinner’s opposition to the Jordan Cove Energy Project, a now-shelved proposal to build a natural gas pipeline across Oregon that would be used to export natural gas to Asia.

The union, which endorsed Oregon Gov.-elect Tina Kotek and backed Schrader in the past, was also impressed with Chavez-DeRemer’s professed support for union rights as the daughter of a member of the Teamsters. She promised to support continued application of the Davis-Bacon Act, which creates a floor on wages for federal construction contracts, and even said she would vote for the PRO Act, a bill protecting organizing rights that has very little Republican support.

“We need pro-prevailing wage Republicans in office,” Lorne Bulling, Local 29’s political coordinator, told HuffPost. “And we really value the need for an open discussion [about energy] and especially having all parties at the table, not just extreme environmental groups.”

Perhaps more significant, the same public backlash to rising crime, homelessness and left-wing activism in Portland that kept the gubernatorial race so close hurt McLeod-Skinner and other candidates down-ballot as well.

“Those issues really did matter and in a district like this might have made the difference,” said Nichols, the Ohio State historian.

Portland, long a byword for left-wing culture, has experienced an uptick in violent crime similar to other U.S. cities in recent years.

But other aspects of what the city has endured are unique. Peaceful marches following the May 25, 2020, police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis gave way to more radical demonstrations, including a prolonged and often violent protest outside the federal courthouse that prompted a controversial intervention by the federal government.

Seeking to address a growing homelessness and drug addiction crisis in Portland, the state also decriminalized hard drugs without even what many supporters of the policy believed was adequate funding or planning to realize the policy’s goals.

“People are scared to go [to downtown Portland],” said Jeff Eager, a former Republican mayor of Bend. “And it’s not just a partisan thing. It’s a ‘am I going to be safe’ thing.”

“The fact that Democrats won’t admit that it’s worse hurts them.”

- Jeff Eager, former mayor of Bend, Oregon

Though Oregon’s 5th District contains only a sliver of the city of Portland, the city’s reputation looms large ― even three hours away in Bend, where some longtime residents fear the slightest hints of a Portland-like trajectory.

Portland is “just worse” than it has been in the past, Eager said. “And the fact that Democrats won’t admit that it’s worse hurts them.”

McLeod-Skinner never embraced the most politically radioactive components of the left-wing criminal justice agenda. For example, she has never been on record calling to “defund” the police.

But McLeod-Skinner, who lives with her wife on a plot of farmland in central Oregon, also had a history of saying things that, though uncontroversial in progressive circles, nonetheless made it easier for Republicans to tie her to the most radical forces in Portland. For example, in August 2020, she tweeted that the rioting that erupted in Kenosha, Wisconsin, after the police shooting of Jacob Blake reflected “righteous anger.”

The opposition dossier that national Republicans assembled on McLeod-Skinner for use by Chavez-DeRemer and GOP super PACs also noted that the Working Families Party and Indivisible, early supporters of McLeod-Skinner, have endorsed calls to “defund the police.” They also highlighted McLeod-Skinner’s December 2021 interview with HuffPost in which she refused to say whether she supported reducing police funding in order to free up money for other public safety programs.

A barrage of TV ads by Chavez-DeRemer fused all of those elements ― as well as McLeod-Skinner’s stint as a city council member in Santa Clara, California ― to depict McLeod-Skinner as a far-left extremist from the San Francisco Bay Area.

Chavez-DeRemer’s second TV ad placed the phrases “defund the police” and “Green New Deal” alongside a photo of McLeod-Skinner as a narrator branded her “an out-of-touch San Francisco area politician pretending to be Oregonian.”

In one of eight ads that the Congressional Leadership Fund aired in the district, the GOP super PAC made it sound like McLeod-Skinner’s description of the situation in Kenosha was about Portland.

“When the mob raged, Jamie McLeod-Skinner sided with them,” the narrator says as an arrow on screen points to rioters and looters marauding city streets at night. “She called it ‘righteous anger.’”

The ad also misrepresented McLeod-Skinner’s praise for Oregon Gov. Kate Brown’s work ousting federal law enforcement officials from Portland.

“McLeod-Skinner even praised Kate Brown’s disastrous riot response, saying, ‘Good job, Governor,’” the narrator says. “Really, Jamie?”

Rep.-elect Lori Chavez-DeRemer (R-Ore.) succeeded in tagging her Democratic opponent as an extremist while evading similar branding for her opposition to full abortion rights.
Rep.-elect Lori Chavez-DeRemer (R-Ore.) succeeded in tagging her Democratic opponent as an extremist while evading similar branding for her opposition to full abortion rights.
Steve Dipaola/Associated Press

A Cash Disadvantage

It took McLeod-Skinner a few weeks to air a TV ad countering the narrative that she was an anti-police extremist. She rolled out a 30-second rebuttal spot with the former police chief of Bend on Oct. 7, at least a month after the first CLF ad tying her to the “defund the police” movement.

Both campaigns say that the polling in the race shifted in Chavez-DeRemer’s favor after the first few weeks of attack ads against McLeod-Skinner.

McLeod-Skinner’s rebuttal ad “took too long to air and did not have sufficient funds pushing it out,” McLeod-Skinner admitted to HuffPost, saying that the campaign had to wait for the former police chief to become available to film the spot.

Nicholas Trainer, a veteran Republican consultant who advised Chavez-DeRemer, offered a similar assessment, pointing to internal polling showing that Chavez-DeRemer had succeeded in defining McLeod-Skinner as a cop hater by the time the rebuttal ad aired.

But he also maintained that there was only so much McLeod-Skinner could do to moderate her image after years of running for public office as a staunch progressive.

“There was always the lingering activist sensibility about her,” Trainer said.

Trainer said that Schrader would have been “a lot harder” to beat. “We were able to occupy a ton of the middle in this campaign that we would have been fighting over with Kurt Schrader,” he said.

Campaigning for moderate voters meant characterizing Chavez-DeRemer as a suburban mom, small-business owner and trailblazer in Latino politics. Chavez-DeRemer and Rep.-elect Andrea Salinas (D) will be the first two Latina members of Congress for Oregon.

“We spent a lot of time talking about generational poverty and how we get more people of color to get more generational wealth,” said George Carrillo, a former Oregon state health official and Democratic candidate for governor who endorsed Chavez-DeRemer. “With those conversations I had, there was no way I couldn’t support her.”

Carrillo, who lives just outside the district, told HuffPost that his attempts to reach McLeod-Skinner for a similar conversation were not successful.

When it comes to the actual policy, Chavez-DeRemer is likely more conservative than the median voter in the district in key respects. During the GOP primary, she touted the legitimate concerns of “millions of Americans that doubt the integrity of the 2020 election” and suggested that those concerns were to blame for the riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. In the general election, she refused to say whether Biden won the race fairly, conceding only that “Biden is the president of the United States.”

Likewise, Chavez-DeRemer supports restricting abortion rights. In May, she said she would support “heartbeat” legislation, which generally means prohibiting an abortion after six weeks of pregnancy.

“I don’t think the lesson is that a progressive can’t win.”

- Christopher McKnight Nichols, Ohio State history professor

But Chavez-DeRemer succeeded in avoiding Democrats’ efforts to paint her as an anti-abortion extremist. She claimed that she opposes federal abortion restrictions and wants the decision left up to the states.

The lack of an imminent threat to Oregon’s permissive abortion laws may have reduced the salience of her stances on the issue.

“If we were in a state that had a trigger law or had a Republican legislature that was moving toward doing something, that would have been an issue for us,” Trainer said.

The Republican spending advantage also made it harder to define Chavez-DeRemer one way or another on the airwaves.

“I don’t think the lesson is that a progressive can’t win,” said Nichols, who previously worked at Oregon State University. “I think the lesson is that it was a tight race. They should have invested a lot more resources in it.”

McLeod-Skinner did not suffer from the anemic fundraising of a fairy-tale progressive upstart by any stretch.

As of late October, McLeod-Skinner had raised about $1 million more than Chavez-DeRemer. And the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), often criticized by progressives for being inadequately supportive of left-leaning candidates, spent $2 million on McLeod-Skinner’s behalf, including more than $1.8 million on TV ads.

In a statement about its involvement in the race, DCCC spokesperson Johanna Warshaw called Chavez-DeRemer an “anti-choice extremist” whose “career in Congress will be short-lived.”

But Republican super PACs heavily outspent Democratic super PACs in the district and, critically, began advertising weeks before their Democratic counterparts.

Not only did the Congressional Leadership Fund spend $7 million, its virtually bottomless coffers enabled it to get on air in early September without any concern that it would run out of money.

In the meantime, progressives are fuming at House Majority PAC, CLF’s Democratic analogue, for failing to spend in the race. “National Democratic PACs walked away and left Jamie to twist in the wind,” Joe Dinkin, national campaigns director for the Working Families Party, said in a statement. (Dinkin led a last-minute super PAC effort that spent about $600,000 on McLeod-Skinner’s behalf.)

The House Majority PAC’s internal polling never showed McLeod-Skinner leading, however. And it was forced to put out fires in neighboring Oregon seats with fewer resources than it would have liked for what turned out to be a far more favorable cycle than it had anticipated.

“Given what was believed by many to be a very challenging political environment … House Majority PAC had to make strategic resource allocation decisions, with many of our investments making a significant impact in races across the country,” HMP spokesperson C.J. Warnke said in a statement.

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