From the edge of Portland through the farmlands of the Willamette Valley and to the Coast, Oregon's 5th Congressional District may be the most geographically and politically diverse in the state.
That diversity will be on display in the Democratic primary on May 19, when the district’s voters will choose between candidates from the opposite ends of their party.
Over nearly 12 years in office, Rep. Kurt Schrader has carved out one of the most conservative voting records of any Democrat in the U.S. House, while easily vanquishing Republicans in a district that President Donald Trump lost by only about four percentage points.
This year, Milwaukie Mayor Mark Gamba, a supporter of Sen. Bernie Sanders, Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, is giving Schrader his first strong primary challenge.
Gamba is testing whether the progressive strains of the Democratic Party that have become so dominant in Portland can gain traction in suburbia, smaller cities and rural communities.
There’s one other Democrat in the 5th Congressional District race, Blair Reynolds, the owner of a Portland Tiki bar. He has emphasized his support for a $1,000 monthly stipend for all adults, a policy popularized by presidential candidate Andrew Yang.
Four candidates are seeking the Republican nomination: Amy Ryan Courser, a former Keizer city councilor; G. Shane Dinkel, a military veteran; Angela Roman, a small-business woman who has been involved in the militia movement; and Joey Nations, a tax analyst for the state who unsuccessfully sought the GOP nomination two years ago. Nations has received attention for fighting anti-fascist demonstrators during Portland protests that turned violent. He’s the best-funded of the Republican candidates — having raised $61,000 — but he didn’t file a statement in the Oregon Voters’ Pamphlet.
Gamba backed by group aiding many left-of-center challengers to Democratic incumbents
Gamba is running with the support of Brand New Congress, the same group that helped Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez leap to national prominence in 2018 when she defeated an entrenched New York City congressman in the Democratic primary. Of course, that was in a densely urban, heavily Democratic district not at all like Oregon's 5th Congressional District.
But Gamba says he can appeal to a wide variety of voters who — regardless of ideology — are being left behind economically.
“What we have now are a lot of politicians who are running the country for and by the corporations, for and by the wealthy, and then you have a small minority that are still trying to represent the people,” said Gamba. “Kurt Schrader falls soundly into representing the corporations.”
Schrader said that he’s actually a “socially progressive, fiscally conservative” Democrat who gets things done for his district by working in a bipartisan manner. That includes trying to find consensus, even when it makes him enemies.
“You know, I’ve probably disappointed pretty much everybody that has supported me at one time or another,” said Schrader.
The 68-year-old congressman, a veterinarian who also served in the Oregon Legislature, has not faced a serious challenge since his first reelection race in 2010, when Republicans spent heavily against him. But their candidate, then-state Rep. Scott Bruun of West Linn, came up short.
“He fits the district perfectly,” Bruun says now. “Dammit.”
For many years, Democrats were largely willing to give Schrader a pass when he didn’t stick with the party. But the surprising strength of Sanders’ insurgent presidential run four years ago, and Trump’s election, helped move the Democratic Party to the left.
Around the country, Democratic incumbents have increasingly found themselves challenged by progressive activists. In Oregon, Brand New Congress is also supporting Doyle Canning, a community organizer from Eugene running in the primary against Rep. Peter DeFazio, who has been in office since 1987.
Gamba, 61, is a professional photographer who worked his way up to shooting assignments for National Geographic. In recent years, he has largely turned to civic affairs and political activism. He was elected Milwaukie mayor in 2015, just as the Clackamas County city on the border with Portland was rapidly changing with young urbanites moving in, seeking cheaper housing. The city adopted its own climate action plan with a goal, he said, of making this “cool little town” completely sustainable.
In his campaign, Gamba argues that the pandemic has put the need for big change in sharp relief. Not everyone has health care and those who do often find it unaffordable. Income inequality is getting worse, he says. And, he concluded, the “most powerful way that America could get out of the economic crisis we’re going to be in” because of the pandemic “is to launch the Green New Deal. It’s a jobs program, right?”
Schrader criticizes Medicare For All and Green New Deal
Schrader counters that Medicare For All and a Green New Deal are "not very well thought through." He argued that shifting all health care funding to the government would cause huge job losses in the private health care sector. And he said the Green New Deal would also hurt the economy by drying up jobs in the fossil-fuel industry. Instead, Schrader is partnering with a West Virginia Republican congressman on a bill that would give the coal and petroleum industries the chance to prove they could reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
From the beginning of his congressional career, Schrader has shied away from the left side of the Democratic caucus. Instead, he allied himself with the Blue Dog Caucus, a group of business-friendly centrist Democrats. Schrader also got involved in another group, the Problem Solvers Caucus, that's sought to work across party lines. He became a frequent critic of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, voting last year against putting her in charge of the House.
GovTrack, which produces an annual analysis of members’ ideological leanings, for years rated Schrader as the 7th most conservative member of the House. In 2019, his rating moved to 19th after several other moderate Democrats joined the House after winning seats Republicans held the year before.
Schrader does often stick with his party. He backed Obamacare from the beginning and voted against the Trump tax cuts in 2017. His departures from the Democratic majority are the exception rather than the rule.
But there’s also plenty for left-of-center Democrats to complain about.
He was one of only six House Democrats who voted in 2019 against gradually raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour over the next six years. Instead, Schrader backed another bill that would provide lower minimum wages outside urban areas, as Oregon does.
He was one of only 10 Democrats to support a 2017 bill Republicans pushed through the House to ease environmental restrictions on logging in national forests — which Schrader said would help combat wildfire. In 2018, only one Democrat had a higher vote rating from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the nation's chief business lobby.
Schrader’s voting record has brought him criticism among many in the state’s increasingly liberal Democratic establishment. This year, five Democratic state legislators broke ranks with Schrader and endorsed Gamba.
“On almost every issue I feel deeply about, Mark is so much closer to my perspective than Kurt is,” said Rep. Alissa Keny-Guyer, D-Portland. She added that she was particularly upset with Schrader’s sponsorship of a product labeling bill that would have negated many of Oregon's requirements for publicly reporting the presence of toxic chemicals in children’s products.
That federal labeling bill has not become law, and Schrader insisted that his bill is only aimed at ensuring that any labeling is scientifically accurate.
Keny-Guyer said these are the same talking points she’s heard from chemical-industry lobbyists who fought Oregon’s toxics law.
Schrader “takes a lot of industry stands and gets paid a lot of [campaign funds] with industry money,” Keny-Guyer added, “and that’s part of my concern with him.”
Political Action Committees provide most of Schrader's campaign funding
Schrader has relied heavily on support from business. In this campaign cycle, three-quarters of his campaign money — more than $900,000 — comes from political action committees, almost all business-related. Only 11 House Democrats received more money from business PACs in the current election cycle, according to the Open Secrets website. All told, he had $3 million in his campaign fund at last report. In contrast, Gamba has raised $182,000 over his campaign.
Schrader said it is not unusual to get more support from political action committees as people “learn that you’re a thoughtful legislator.” He added, “I don’t guarantee anybody anything more than an access.”
State Rep. Paul Evans, D-Monmouth, who is backing Schrader, said he likes how the congressman works with a wide variety of interests.
“The way that Kurt approaches issues,” said Evans, “bringing people together and saying these two or three things are not possible, but what can we do in the middle, I’ve seen that be effective.”
Schrader said some of his major accomplishments are very practical. He cited his help for moving a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration research fleet from Seattle to Newport, and co-sponsoring legislation to allow the killing of sea lions consuming large numbers of salmon at the Bonneville Dam.
The congressman is now gearing up a television advertising campaign that Gamba can’t match. In an interview, Schrader said Democrats agree on the same goals. He emphasized that he too wants to provide universal healthcare and combat climate change — he just takes a different approach. He’s also full of praise for Nancy Pelosi, saying she’s done a much better job of reaching out to members like him.
The pandemic has appeared to have a larger negative impact on Gamba’s campaign. He said he planned to have a large contingent of volunteers knocking on doors around the district. Now, they are largely reduced to making phone calls, which tend to be less effective.
Bruun, the Republican candidate Schrader beat a decade ago, said he'd be surprised if Schrader didn't handily win the primary. But he noted that Oregon is expected to get a new congressional seat next year because of population growth. And that, he said, could eventually produce a less politically divided district more favorable to a Democratic progressive like Gamba.