For the first time since Republican Rep. Greg Walden of Oregon won his office two decades ago, Democrats are literally lining up to run against him.
Walden’s high-profile push to roll back the Affordable Care Act and his ties to President Trump led to a bumper crop of potential rivals for the May 15 primary.
“When I ran in 2016, people were not engaged,” said Jim Crary, who is making his second run against Walden. “This time people are off the charts.”
Crary, a retired business executive who lives in rural Jackson County, is one of seven Democratic candidates crisscrossing the vast 2nd Congressional District, which is larger than any state east of the Mississippi River. It runs from Grant Pass down the I-5 corridor to California and includes all of eastern Oregon.
It’s also by far the most conservative of the state’s five congressional districts. Republicans outnumber Democrats by nearly 45,000 voters, and Walden has always racked up easy victories in his re-election races.
“Democrats have always looked at this and said, ‘He’s won with [about] 70 points,’” said another Democratic hopeful, retired maritime official Eric Burnette of Hood River. “As it has been, so it shall always be.”
But the election of Donald Trump and Republican control of Congress has sparked a counter-reaction among Democrats that has spread to the 2nd district. Burnette said Democrats are now ready to quit being doormats here.
In part, that’s because Walden himself has become a potent symbol of the current power structure in Washington, D.C.
He chairs the influential House Energy and Commerce Committee and helped write the bill to repeal the health care law so closely tied to former President Barack Obama. Walden’s measure — which he wrote with other House GOP leaders — passed the House before dying in the Senate.
Walden’s role sparked huge debate in the district, where more than a quarter of residents receive coverage through Medicaid. That’s the federal-state program that was greatly expanded under the Affordable Care Act.
Several Democrats say the issue helped push them into the 2nd district race.
Jenni Neahring said she gave up her work as a palliative care physician in Bend to run “when I saw everything I was working for being threatened when I almost saw the Affordable Care Act almost being repealed.
Another candidate, Jamie McLeod-Skinner, said she was surprised that the genial congressman — the only Republican in Oregon’s congressional delegation — become such a strong ally of the president.
“Honestly, I had faith in Greg Walden,” she said. “I thought, he’s a moderate Republican. He’s going to hold the president accountable. He’s going to focus on doing what’s right for the district and he didn’t do that.”
The candidates have appeared at a series of forums around the district where they’ve deliberately avoided saying anything negative about each other. Instead, they’re busy honing their campaign speeches.
“We’re doing this in a smart way,” said Burnette, the retired maritime official. “We’re not forming a circular firing squad. … In all honesty, we’ve gotten to like each other.”
McLeod-Skinner, a Terrebonne resident, appears to be the front-runner. She’s won five straw polls held at different forums and says she’s racked up more than 30,000 miles traveling the district. And she’s won several key endorsements, including from the Oregon Education Association, the state’s powerful teachers’ union.
She’s had a varied career, including working overseas to help war-torn Bosnia recover its water infrastructure and as a planner in California. While she was there she served on the Santa Clara City Council.
Back in Oregon, she had an ill-fated stint as the city manager of the Jackson County city of Phoenix. She was fired after just four months. Critics claimed she caused a toxic work environment. McLeod-Skinner said she was caught up in a dysfunctional city government that has chewed through several city managers.
McLeod-Skinner has spent most of her life outside the district, but she’s worked to build up her local cred.
“I finished high school in southern Oregon,” she said at a recent forum in The Dalles. “My mom taught in southern and central Oregon, and my wife’s family has been ranching in eastern Oregon for over a hundred years.”
She said in an interview that being gay hasn’t been a big deal to the people she’s talked to on the campaign trail, saying there is a strong libertarian bent in the largely rural district. She joked that it’s easier to talk about being gay in eastern Oregon than it is to admit in the liberal hotspot of Ashland that she likes country music.
In addition to McLeod-Skinner, Neahring, Crary and Burnette, three other candidates round out the field: teacher Raz Mason of The Dalles, retired Chrysler executive Tim White of Bend and stonemason Michael Byrne of Hood River.
So far, the candidates have not made any dramatic departures from Democratic orthodoxy. For example, unlike Democrats running in some conservative districts around the country, none of them have called for replacing House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California.
Instead, they talk about respecting the rural values of the district and working across party lines to come up with solutions.
“There’s a lot of good stuff we can do to pull in our conservative friends,” said Mason, explaining that there’s a lot the country can do to tackle climate change that would help boost rural economies.
Meanwhile, Walden faces low-profile opposition from two GOP rivals, Grants Pass truck driver Randy Pollock and Prineville appliance worker Paul J. Romero Jr. Republicans are confident in the congressman’s ability to hold the district in the fall.
GOP political consultant Reagan Knopp of Medford said Walden has built up a strong following in a district that has at least a half-dozen distinct media markets. At the end of March, he was sitting on a $3.2 million campaign fund. Altogether, the Democrats have raised little more than one-tenth of that.
“If they had a Democrat with strong name ID and strong fundraising, it’s still going to be tough,” Knopp said. “So a Democrat with no name ID and little fundraising power isn’t going to have a snowball’s chance in an oven of doing it, I’d say.”
Still, Democrats like their homegrown field of friendly rivals. Peter Sage, a retired Medford investment adviser, is an active Democratic donor and writes a political blog.
“You know,” he said, “we actually have seven candidates who present themselves very, very well in public as absolutely legitimate candidates.”
Sage said he wishes the Democratic contenders would challenge one another more, which, he said, would help the eventual primary winner learn how to better deflect Republican attacks in the fall.
But even if Democrats don’t win in November — and he acknowledged that they will likely lose the 2nd district race once again — Sage said he thinks the party’s nominee can deeply cut Walden’s usual victory margin.
That, he said, could give Walden enough of a scare to make him ponder retirement — particularly if Republicans lose control of the House this year.