Democrats look to avert another embarrassment in Oregon House race

Democrats look to avert another embarrassment in Oregon House race

Democrats are hoping to avert another embarrassment in a key Oregon House district that flipped red in the midterms.

The House Democrats’ national campaign arm has thrown its weight behind state Rep. Janelle Bynum (D), frustrating her 2024 primary rival, Jamie McLeod-Skinner — the 2022 Democratic nominee who lost to Republican Rep. Lori Chavez-DeRemer.

In 2022, McLeod-Skinner defeated then-Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.) in the primary, despite the incumbent’s notable backing from President Biden, but she lost the close general election by 2 points as Republicans took control of the U.S. House.

The party is hoping for a different fate this cycle with Bynum, who has bested Chavez-DeRemer before in two state Legislature races and snagged top endorsements from the likes of Oregon Gov. Tina Kotek (D) and EMILY’s List, a group that backs female candidates for office and had endorsed McLeod-Skinner in the midterms.

“I think all Democrats in the state, and really in the country, if they’re paying attention, understand that a Democratic majority in the House runs through Oregon,” said Beaver State-based Democratic strategist Hannah Love.

“There’s a lot of eyes on the seat and a lot of attention on the seat, and I think, so far, the tenor of communications from all sides … really reflects the intensity of the stakes of the race,” Love said.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) earlier this year put Bynum on its coveted Red to Blue list of candidates it’s backing to challenge vulnerable incumbent House Republicans — a move that appeared to irk McLeod-Skinner.

“Whether the DCCC doesn’t trust voters here in Oregon to make the best choice or they are determined to cover up their 2022 election mistake of canceling their investment in OR-05 and helping Chavez-DeRemer win — it’s wrong and undemocratic,” McLeod-Skinner wrote on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, the day the list went out.

During the midterms, the DCCC had backed Schrader — and though they moved to elevate McLeod-Skinner once she scored the nod, many Democrats and donors appeared disgruntled that their efforts to protect the seven-term Democratic incumbent had been foiled.

“When it came time to look for how to retake the seat, it was pretty obvious that they were not interested in re-running the same candidate,” said Portland-based Democratic strategist Jake Weigler. “I think there was a strong desire among D.C. as well as a number of more institutional Democratic entities here to find a stronger candidate.”

Part of Democrats’ reasoning behind backing Bynum this time is her history of going head-to-head with Chavez-DeRemer.

Bynum beat the Republican in a close race for Oregon’s House District 51 back in 2016, and then again by a wider margin in 2018. If she manages to advance to the general and oust Chavez-DeRemer, she’d make history in the state as the first Black lawmaker to represent Oregon in the U.S. House.

But first, she’ll have to beat McLeod-Skinner in the primary. The midterm race became a proxy battle of sorts between the two wings of the Democratic Party, with McLeod-Skinner painted as the progressive and Schrader painted as the establishment-aligned moderate. Observers in the state say there’s less of a clear-cut difference between the two primary candidates this time around.

“It’s harder to paint Janelle Bynum as a Washington insider the way you could portray Kurt Schrader, and I think that presents a challenge, probably, to McLeod-Skinner,” said Chris Stout, an associate professor of political science at Oregon State University.

While there were “really clear ideological differences” in the primary last cycle, both Democrats this time are generally seen as progressives, and the race seems more focused on which candidate will be better to take on Chavez-DeRemer, Love said.

For that reason, another factor likely fueling Democrats’ hesitance to get behind McLeod-Skinner is controversy swirling around her campaign.

report from the Oregon Capital Chronicle last fall detailed allegations from former campaign staff that the Terrebonne lawyer was a “nightmarish boss,” and a January report from Willamette Week added former campaign workers’ claims that McLeod-Skinner made physical contact with her campaign driver. McLeod-Skinner has refuted those accounts.

The House Republicans’ campaign arm has seized on those reports as they pitch the primary as a “civil war” for Democrats.

“The Democrats’ race-to-the-left primary will leave their nominee broke and unpalatable for general election voters,” Savannah Viar, a spokesperson for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said in a statement.

Democrats would be “remiss” not to acknowledge the reports and try to avoid any controversy that could be used against a nominee in the general, said one Democratic operative familiar with the race.

“That’s just another layer of, ‘Do you really want to take that risk, with the House majority on the line?’” the operative said.

Bynum, on the other hand, is “the right leader for this moment, and the right candidate to replace Lori Chavez-DeRemer and her extreme track record in DC,” DCCC Chair Rep. Suzan DelBene (D-Wash.) said in a statement.

Others in the party, though, are skeptical.

“Bynum has only run for the state Legislature, so she’s had a very small profile,” Weigler said, though he noted Bynum’s profile has certainly been aided by her endorsements so far. And as the race gets more intense, a bruising primary could also wound one of the Democratic hopefuls for the general.

McLeod-Skinner’s campaign said it learned a lot from the last cycle and pushed back against the idea that Bynum’s wins against Chavez-DeRemer in state House races bode well for this contest — arguing the voter demographics in those races don’t exactly translate to Oregon’s 5th District, which spans from Bend in central Oregon to Multnomah and Clackamas counties, just outside of Portland.

Some county-level Democrats, too, have knocked the DCCC for stepping into the race without consulting local party officials, according to reporting from The Oregonian, arguing the primary should be left up to voters.

“Democrats in Oregon’s 5th said it best when they pushed back on the DCCC for getting involved. Protecting democracy means letting voters decide,” McLeod-Skinner told The Hill in a statement.

McLeod-Skinner boasts endorsements from Progressive Democrats of America and the LGBTQ Victory Fund — she would be the first openly LGBTQ member of Congress from Oregon if elected.

But no matter who wins the nod, “Democrats have a really good chance just because of the way the district is set up,” Stout said. “It’s a district that leans toward their party, and so assuming that 2024 is going to be a high-turnout election … then that should go to whoever the nominee is.”

Chavez-DeRemer “barely won” during a year that was generally good for Republicans, Stout said, as they took control of the House.

Now a first-term lawmaker, Chavez-DeRemer has a congressional voting record to run against — and she’s also endorsed former President Trump in the White House race, which could make it harder for her to persuade some independents to join her camp. Biden easily won the district back in 2020.

Still, Chavez-DeRemer has the fundraising edge, entering the year with around $1.6 million cash on hand. McLeod-Skinner has slightly outraised Bynum on the Democratic side, with around $242,000 cash on hand at the start of the year to Bynum’s $233,000.

McLeod-Skinner and Bynum are set to face off in Oregon’s May primary to decide which Democrat will head to the general and fight to flip the seat back to blue.

“It’s a very competitive seat, and there’s a desire by the Democrats to take it back. And there’s some pretty strong disagreements within the party about the best way to do that,” Weigler said.

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