Democratic U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, the dean of Oregon’s House delegation, is facing a potentially tough reelection fight this fall following a recent surge in fundraising by Republican challenger Alek Skarlatos.
The 27-year-old Skarlatos, a former National Guardsman from Roseburg who helped stop a terrorist attack on a European train in 2015, has used his fame to build a national fundraising base. He's raised more than $1.2 million, most of that in recent months. His fundraising eclipses what previous challengers to DeFazio have been able to achieve at this point.
“He’s charismatic, he’s young, and he has this level of celebrity behind him,” said Alana Lenihan, the Democratic Party chairwoman in Douglas County. “That is going to make it more challenging.”
DeFazio, 73, is accustomed to carefully watching the politics in his closely divided district, which Donald Trump lost by just one-tenth of one percentage point in 2016. He’s been able to straddle the needs of a district dominated by the liberal cities of Corvallis and Eugene in the north and conservative, timber-dominated regions to the south.
He’s done so in part by being an outspoken populist who criticized big banks, free trade and big federal budget deficits. In the 1990s he was one of few Democrats to support a balanced budget amendment.
However, given the increasingly polarized politics of the country, Republicans see an opening here to pry Trump voters away from DeFazio. Skarlatos accuses DeFazio of being too closely tied to the political left — he likes to picture DeFazio next to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York — and of not doing enough to increase logging on federal lands.
“I mean, he co-sponsored the Green New Deal,” Skarlatos said in an interview. “I mean, he’s been in office for 33 years. Nobody is excited about that. He’s just old and stale.”
DeFazio’s campaign manager, Carly Gabrielson, said the congressman — who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee — was too busy this week for an interview. Gabrielson said in a statement that DeFazio has worked hard over many years to find common ground “between the polarized sides” of the timber issue. She cited his support for federal aid to timber-dependent communities and for an historic to boost funding for wildfire prevention, among other things.
“While Alek Skarlatos claims that he could single-handedly restore timber jobs, the reality is that he has no plan and no experience to do so,” she added.
DeFazio has previously said he co-sponsored the Green New Deal — a sweeping blueprint for cutting fossil-fuel emissions — because the world faces catastrophic droughts, extreme weather and other huge problems if it fails to take big action. Separately, DeFazio recently pushed a $1.5 trillion infrastructure bill through the House that includes major investments in zero-emission buses and electric vehicle charging stations. That measure goes to the Senate, which is likely to approve a quite different package.
Not surprisingly, the two candidates have also disagreed over Trump’s handling of the pandemic. Skarlatos said Trump has had to make tough decisions balancing the economy and protecting people from the virus. “It just seems like a lose-lose situation no matter which way you come down on it,” Skarlatos said.
DeFazio has charged that the president has failed to adequately expand COVID-19 testing and has sought during the pandemic to take away health care for many Americans by pushing for the elimination of the Affordable Care Act.
Skarlatos has gained money and support from House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif, and from House Minority Whip Steve Scalise, R-Louisiana. McCarthy set up a joint fundraising committee that has brought in more than $25,000 for Skarlatos. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, says he will raise at least $100,000 each for 25 House candidates, including Skarlatos. Last month, he was interviewed on “Fox and Friends,” and Donald Trump Jr. tweeted the segment to his 5.3 million followers.
Skarlatos said he’s developed some national mailing lists that have brought in a “snowballing” number of contributions. But he’s spent his fundraising costs have been high, totaling about $400,000 just in May and June.
That leaves DeFazio with a sizable lead when it comes to money in the bank. The congressman had $1.7 million in his campaign account at the end of June, compared to about $450,000 for Skarlatos.
With his incumbency and powerful chairmanship, DeFazio has been able to rely largely on political action committees. In the current cycle, 57% has come from PACs, many of them connected to corporations and unions focused on transportation issues. For example, he’s recently received donations from PACs connected to United Airlines, the Machinists union, the Enterprise auto rental company, Ford Motor Co. and Portland-based Greenbrier, which manufactures railcars.
Skarlatos has also been paying himself a salary out of his campaign fund. Federal election rules allow non-incumbent campaigns to pay themselves if it doesn’t exceed what they made in the previous year. The idea behind the rules is to help candidates of modest means run for office.
So far, Skarlatos has paid himself $12,000. He said that he’s been campaigning full-time for almost a year and going without pay is “not something that I can do indefinitely.” The Center for Public Integrity reported that 22 House candidates in 2018 paid themselves, including Ocasio-Cortez.
Skarlatos received a burst of fame from his action in the 2015 terrorist attack that few congressional candidates can match. He and two fellow service-members who foiled the attack on a train to Paris received presidential awards in France and in the United States. Clint Eastwood later made a movie about the event — and he enlisted Skarlatos and his two companions to play themselves.
Skarlatos was also on "Dancing with the Stars," finishing third in the 2015 competition. He said most of his income last year came from paid speaking gigs, mostly focused on the terrorist attack, and from a small property management business.
Republicans also think Skarlatos can take advantage of rural Oregon’s increasing political alienation from urban Oregon. Skarlatos spoke at a pro-timber rally in Salem earlier this year before Republican state lawmakers led a walkout that shut down the legislative session.
But national analysts who rank congressional races have so far rated the district as either safely Democratic or leaning strongly that way.
Nathan Gonzales, editor and publisher of Inside Elections, said he doubts top Republicans will invest heavily in this race. He said they are more focused on some two dozen House districts Trump won in 2016 that are held by Democrats — and on protecting many of their own incumbents who look increasingly endangered now that the president is dropping in the polls.
“Under the right circumstances, this district could elect a Republican,” Gonzales said of Oregon’s 4th District. “I don’t think this year is it.”
If Skarlatos were to win an upset victory, he'd take office at the age of 28, younger than any current House member (although there is a not-quite-25-year-old North Carolina Republican congressional candidate who is the favorite to win his seat).
Lenihan, the Douglas County Democratic official, charged that Skarlatos wasn’t really knowledgeable on local issues when he ran a losing race for the Douglas County Commission in 2018. “He doesn’t have much experience in doing anything other than being a celebrity,” she said.
Art Robinson, the Cave Junction scientist who ran against DeFazio in the last five elections, said he thought Skarlatos was a strong candidate and will benefit from his youth.
“Of course, he doesn’t have a lot of experience,” said Robinson, “but that’s kind of an advantage with DeFazio, because anything you’ve done he will twist into something bad.”