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Oregon’s Kurt Schrader, after backlash over breaking with House Democrats, faces primary challenge in redrawn district

<i>Jamie McLeod Skinner/Getty Images</i><br/>A contentious House primary in Oregon is dividing national and local Democrats as Rep. Kurt Schrader (pictured right)
Jamie McLeod Skinner/Getty Images
A contentious House primary in Oregon is dividing national and local Democrats as Rep. Kurt Schrader (pictured right)

By Gregory Krieg, CNN

A contentious House primary in Oregon is dividing national and local Democrats as Rep. Kurt Schrader, running now in a district where more than half of primary voters are seeing his name on the ballot for the first time, faces a challenge on Tuesday from progressive Jamie McLeod-Skinner.

Schrader has often angered party progressives during his seven terms in the House. But it wasn’t until the state redistricting process produced a new map last year, which significantly altered the boundaries of his 5th Congressional District, that the conditions for a serious primary challenge first emerged.

The race has attracted a barrage of outside spending, with more than $2 million alone coming from a pair of super PACs backing Schrader’s reelection bid. Schrader also has the support of President Joe Biden, who made the incumbent his first endorsement of the cycle, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the party’s House campaign arm. McLeod-Skinner has received a relatively modest boost from progressive outside groups, led by the Working Families Party.

But, in a more ominous development for Schrader, she has also been endorsed by four Democratic county chapters across the new district.

Three of the local parties took the unusual step of publicly demanding the DCCC stay out of the race. In April, the chairs of the Deschutes, Clackamas and Marion County Democrats wrote a letter condemning the DCCC’s involvement — including, they noted, the funding of a campaign staffer for Schrader and efforts to recruit volunteers for his campaign — and asked the organization to “cease your active support of Kurt Schrader during the primary election.”

“Allow Oregonians to choose who represents us in Congress,” they wrote.

DCCC spokesperson Johanna Warshaw defended the organization, telling CNN that its “core mission is to re-elect Democratic members like Congressman Schrader, who has been critical in advancing President Biden’s agenda — from fighting to lower the cost of health care and prescription drugs to protecting a woman’s right to choose.”

The backlash, and Schrader’s opposition to key pieces of the President’s legislative agenda, did not dissuade Biden from offering his support.

“We don’t always agree, but when it has mattered most, Kurt has been there for me,” Biden said in the April 23 announcement.

Schrader and his campaign have also argued that he is best positioned to win in what is expected to be a tight general election in the swing central Oregon district.

“The reason why he has won this competitive district time and time again is because he can bring everyone together — rural, urban and suburban — to find common ground and deliver wins that make a real difference in the lives of all Oregonians,” Schrader campaign spokesperson Deb Barnes told CNN.

McLeod-Skinner lost a House race in the 2nd Congressional District to since-retired Republican Rep. Greg Walden in 2018 — though she outperformed expectations and did especially well in a chunk of the district that now rests in the new 5th — before finishing third in the 2020 Democratic primary for secretary of state.

“We all want to win the general. I would not be in this race if I had not done my homework and was not convinced I could win the general,” McLeod-Skinner said.

And the rush of support from Washington, she told CNN in an interview, should be viewed as evidence of Schrader’s weakness at home and a disconnect between national leadership and the politics of the district.

“This may be a DC formula that is part of the reason why Democrats are hemorrhaging voters — there’s not an understanding of relationship building,” McLeod-Skinner said. “This sense you can just throw money into it and then voters will be led around by their nose, I think, is incredibly disrespectful of voters and a lack of understanding of relationships.”

McLeod-Skinner also took aim at Schrader over his votes against the American Rescue Plan, Biden’s $1.9 trillion Covid relief package, and a measure in Biden’s Build Back Better package to allow the government to negotiate the price of pharmaceutical drugs, which would dramatically lower prices. Schrader pushed an alternative provision and ultimately voted for full bill, but not before joining a group of nine moderates in an effort to decouple it from the bipartisan infrastructure bill — a tactical step that ultimately helped doom Build Back Better, Biden’s would-be signature legislation — in the Senate.

“Folks across the political spectrum don’t wanna be priced gouged on their prescription drugs. That’s a no-brainer,” McLeod-Skinner said. “And Kurt’s very much seen as having personally gotten in the way of that, no matter how many shiny flyers big pharma sends.”

Schrader’s popularity with pharmaceutical donors has often been the center of progressive criticism of his work in Congress. Center Forward, which has spent more than $1 million backing him, and has received big bucks from the drug industry, which has given heavily to Schrader’s campaigns.

Asked about his vote against allowing prescription drug negotiations, Barnes, Schrader’s spokesperson, pointed to his eventual support for Build Back Better in the House.

“He has been a partner to the Biden administration, helping to pass the Build Back Better Act that allows Medicare to negotiate prescription prices and cap the cost of insulin,” Barnes said.

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