Veteran Democratic Rep. Peter DeFazio of Springfield turned back the toughest challenge in his 34-year U.S. House career, defeating Republican Alek Skarlatos in race for Oregon’s 4th Congressional District. Updated results Wednesday morning showed DeFazio leading by nearly 25,000 votes out of more than 450,000 ballots cast in the race.
The expensive and hard-fought race was watched closely by congressional observers because DeFazio chairs the powerful House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
Skarlatos, a former Oregon National Guardsman from Roseburg, gained international notice in 2015 when he and two other American servicemen foiled a terrorist attack on a train bound for Paris. He later appeared on “Dancing With the Stars” and his celebrity attracted national Republican support that fueled his well-financed challenge to DeFazio.
In the end, Skarlatos raised around $4.5 million, compared to $3.8 million for DeFazio (although the congressman also had the benefit of another $1.1 million leftover from previous races). Outside groups, often funded by huge donations from wealthy individuals, also poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into independent advertisements seeking to sway voters in a district that runs from Corvallis and Eugene down to the California border.
Although the district had become steadily more conservative, DeFazio handily won his last five races against Republican Art Robinson, an iconoclastic scientist from Cave Junction. DeFazio has leaned on his power to bring federal money home to his district. This included money for port dredging on the Oregon Coast, funding for veteran services and an innovative bus line running from Eugene to Springfield.
DeFazio’s been a leading figure in congressional investigations of the safety problems involving the Boeing 737 Max jetliner and in putting together infrastructure investment plans that Democrats want to pursue following the presidential election.
Skarlatos, however, criticized DeFazio as old and out of touch with the residents of the 4th Congressional District. Skarlatos charged that the congressman should have done more to boost timber harvests from federal lands during his more than three decades in Congress. And in the last weeks of the campaign, Skarlatos sought to make an issue out of the racial justice protests in Portland, saying they were leading to violence and lawlessness.
“It’s simply the blueprint the Democrats want for the rest of the country,” Skarlatos said in an interview on the “Fox and Friends” TV show, one of many appearances he had on the conservative cable network.
DeFazio countered that he had a long history of working to provide sustainable timber harvests on federal lands. He condemned unlawful behavior at protests but talked about his support for a House-passed bill aimed at reducing racial discrimination by law enforcement.
In addition, DeFazio repeatedly criticized Skarlatos for opposing the Affordable Care Act — also known as Obamacare. DeFazio said the law has provided health insurance for tens of thousands of residents in his district that the Republicans have no alternate plan for replacing.
Similarly, DeFazio hits Skarlatos for opposing an expansive COVID-19 relief bill passed by the Democratic-led House, and for opposing funding for Planned Parenthood and seeking to overturn the Roe vs. Wade abortion-rights decision.
“I have a young opponent who says he’s with Donald Trump,” said DeFazio with a sigh at one forum last week.
In many ways, Skarlatos and DeFazio were talking to two very distinct constituencies in the 4th Congressional District, which Trump lost by only a tenth of a percentage point in 2016. DeFazio’s strength comes in the Eugene-Springfield area and Corvallis, while Republicans tend to dominate in much of the rest of the district. Trump handily won Linn, Douglas, Josephine, Coos and Curry counties in 2016.
Skarlatos hoped to run at least as well as Trump did in those counties in 2016 while cutting into DeFazio’s margins in Lane and Benton counties. In particular, his campaign hoped that the pandemic would reduce the student vote at Oregon State University and the University of Oregon this year.
For his part, DeFazio hoped the district would at least partly turn away from Republicans. While Trump came close to winning the district in 2016, the GOP’s nominee in 2012, Mitt Romney, lost the district by nearly 7 percentage points.
Through his 34 years in Congress, DeFazio also cultivated a distinct populist view that resonated with voters disenchanted with the political establishment. Long before Trump launched his own battles against free trade, DeFazio voted against every major trade agreement to come before Congress. DeFazio parted ways with fellow Democrats in supporting a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget. And he opposed President Barack Obama’s $787 billion stimulus bill, saying it didn’t include enough money for infrastructure spending.
DeFazio often talked about battling “idiots,” as when he told a TV station in Eugene in 2011 that there was a shortage of federal money for needed dam repairs in Oregon because of “some of the idiots I’m working with in Washington."