Jamie McLeod-Skinner Unseats Pharma-Friendly Oregon Democrat In Primary

Rep. Kurt Schrader’s deviations from Democratic Party leadership — and his coziness with Big Pharma — came back to haunt him.
Jamie McLeod-Skinner prevailed over Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.) in a Democratic primary, despite Schrader's massive cash advantage.
Jamie McLeod-Skinner prevailed over Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.) in a Democratic primary, despite Schrader's massive cash advantage.
Jamie McLeod-Skinner for Congress

On the strength of a relentless effort to paint Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.) as a corporate-friendly obstacle to President Joe Biden’s agenda, progressive challenger Jamie McLeod-Skinner has ousted Schrader in Oregon’s 5th Congressional District primary.

McLeod-Skinner’s win is a major shot in the arm to progressives eager to punish lawmakers who break from the mainstream Democratic agenda. It’s also presumably a disappointment to Biden, who gave Schrader his first endorsement of the midterm election cycle.

That McLeod-Skinner overcame Schrader’s massive cash advantageas well as his support from corporate-backed super PACs and backing from the national Democratic Party ― makes her victory that much more notable.

“The writing was on the wall: She’s a populist candidate. She’s good at campaigning. She’s got supporters,” said Christopher McKnight Nichols, an Oregon politics watcher and history professor at Oregon State University. “But it’s still a shock because an incumbent Democrat losing to somewhat of an outsider in a primary is uncommon. [Schrader] had a lot of money here.”

“She won it, but he lost it,” he added. “With the power of the incumbency, with the money that he had involved, with his longstanding ties and connections, he should have won.”

Voting in the primary came to a close on May 17, but due to tens of thousands of outstanding ballots in a populous county, it took The Associated Press more than a week to declare a winner.

McLeod-Skinner, a small business owner and emergency recovery coordinator, now faces the difficult task of defending a Democratic seat in a GOP wave year that House Republicans had planned to contest even if Schrader won. In November, McLeod-Skinner is due to face Republican nominee Lori Chavez-DeRemer, the former mayor of Happy Valley, Oregon.

And national Democrats and plenty of election watchers see McLeod-Skinner as a more vulnerable nominee than Schrader would have been, not least because she is not an incumbent.

House Democrats’ campaign arm, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, delegated staff members to assist Schrader in his primary bid. And Dave Wasserman of The Cook Political Report wrote on Wednesday that if McLeod-Skinner won, Cook would downgrade the district’s rating from “Lean Democrat” to “tossup.”

The newly redrawn district is also more challenging terrain for Democrats. Biden won the old district, centered more in Portland’s suburbs and exurbs, by about 10 percentage points, but he would have won the new seat, which includes large swaths of rural central and Eastern Oregon, by about 9 points.

“She’ll have a battle on her hands, but if I had to bet right now, she’ll pull it out,” Nichols said. “She’s a really good campaigner.”

Schrader’s journey to an unlikely defeat began in early 2021, when, following the riot at the U.S. Capitol, he compared the effort to impeach then-President Donald Trump to a “lynching,” a remark for which he later apologized. Progressive anger toward Schrader built when he voted against the original version of Biden’s American Rescue Plan ― the COVID-19 economic relief bill ― before approving the package sent back by the Senate.

Schrader hemorrhaged support from local Democratic stakeholders for his stances on liberal priorities like COVID-19 relief and prescription drug price negotiation.
Schrader hemorrhaged support from local Democratic stakeholders for his stances on liberal priorities like COVID-19 relief and prescription drug price negotiation.
Tom Williams/Getty Images

Schrader joined other moderate Democrats in helping decouple the ambitious Build Back Better legislation from the bipartisan infrastructure bill, which many observers believe undermined the former’s chances of passing. As House Democratic leaders fretted over the group’s dissension, Schrader called House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) “truly a terrible person” in a text-message conversation with fellow centrists.

But Schrader’s most fateful error was likely siding with Big Pharma on an issue where public opinion is squarely against the industry. Taking advantage of Democrats’ narrow margins in the House, Schrader, who inherited a fortune from a former top executive at Pfizer, insisted on watering down Biden’s prescription drug negotiation bill as a condition for his support.

“He didn’t have to do some of these things,” Nichols said. “He also didn’t have to take so much money in pharmaceutical industry contributions.”

That step cost Schrader with local Democrats wary of anything that resembled the intra-party obstructionism of Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.).

McLeod-Skinner never tired of calling Schrader the “Joe Manchin of the House.” And rather than explicitly run as a leftist, McLeod-Skinner simply said she would be the truer Democrat and partner to Biden.

“You have gone so far to the right that running to the left of you simply means I’m a Democrat,” she told Schrader in a televised debate in late April.

With the counsel of seasoned campaigners at the Working Families Party and a nationally renowned media strategist, McLeod-Skinner combined her critique of Schrader’s ties to Big Pharma with an argument that she is more authentically rural than he is.

Her first TV ad depicted her driving a tractor over checks from corporations as she vows to refuse money from corporate political action committees.

“Big Pharma can’t buy my vote,” she says in the spot, as her tractor shreds an oversized check meant to represent a payment from prescription drug makers.

The pitch paid off, partly because McLeod-Skinner already had relationships in central Oregon from her 2018 congressional run. That part of the state was previously not in Schrader’s district, depriving him of some of the ordinary advantages of an incumbent.

Big Pharma nonetheless came through for Schrader with a major infusion of campaign cash, funding a super PAC that spent over $1 million on his behalf. The group Mainstream Democrats, a centrist super PAC funded by billionaire LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, kicked in another $785,000 in spending to save Schrader.

Pharmaceutical industry PACs also contributed more to Schrader than they did to any other House Democrat this cycle except one ― helping him to spend more than $3.4 million fighting off McLeod-Skinner, which was at least three times the money her campaign spent.

Schrader used some of the money to tout his commitment to lowering prescription drug costs in a TV ad, prompting outcry from an affordable medicine advocate.

At that point, whether or not his misleading message resonated with voters, it was probably too late for Schrader, who had lost the support of key Democratic stakeholders in Oregon’s 5th over a month earlier.

By March, a number of labor unions, already unhappy with Schrader’s vote against a bill making it easier to unionize, backed McLeod-Skinner over Schrader. Four of the county-level Democratic parties in Oregon’s 5th also backed McLeod-Skinner.

“That was the bobber in the water for the fact that McLeod-Skinner could really win this one,” Nichols said.

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