After more than 20 years on the job, U.S. Rep. Greg Walden is preparing to retire. But until his term ends early next year, Oregon’s only Republican in Congress is still deeply engaged in the business of writing laws, guiding policy, and — most recently — advising President Donald Trump on reopening the U.S. economy in the era of COVID-19.
Walden joined "Think Out Loud" on Thursday to discuss his views on the appropriate response to the coronavirus, his support for reopening rural areas of Oregon before the rest of the state, and the reasons he is not pushing the rest of the country to adopt vote-by-mail just yet.
On the response to the coronavirus, Walden said he’s listening carefully to medical professionals, particularly to the advice of Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who the congressman has known for two decades.
“We have to be guided, to a very large measure, by the most brilliant scientists we have and health folks we have in America, and, frankly, learn from our global partners about what’s worked and not worked in their countries, and apply all that,” Walden said.
At a time when much of the country appears politicized about nearly every major social issue, he pushed back against the suggestion that Americans’ COVID-19 responses have been divided along political lines.
“There’s a lot that gets spun out there by pundits, but I don’t see it as political,” Walden said, adding that Trump’s recent tweets last week urging people to “LIBERATE” several locked-down states led by Democratic governors are a sign that the president’s “an optimist at heart” and noting that the president also criticized Georgia’s governor, a Republican, for moving to reopen that state too soon.
Walden's view that many Americans' are nonpartisan in their take on COVID-19 is supported by two recent polls. A national poll released this week found that majorities of all major political groups say they support the stay-at-home orders, although that sentiment is stronger among Democrats and independents than Republicans. And a separate survey of Oregonians found that 82% support restrictions aimed at containing the spread of disease in this state.
Yet there is a divide in attitudes in western Oregon, compared to views further east. DHM Research said Wednesday 54% of Oregonians polled east of the Cascades strongly support the governor’s stay-home orders.
Walden said he believes that different lived experiences are driving the push to end stay-home orders in eastern Oregon, where some counties have no COVID-19 diagnoses and some political leaders are asking Gov. Kate Brown to ease restrictions.
“Among Republicans and Democrats and independents, if you are in an area that’s had virtually no cases, or none at all, you’re saying to yourself, ‘You’re killing my economy and my small business,’” Walden said. “If we have the protective equipment, if we have the ability to act like adults and do spaced social distancing, can’t we get back to work?”
Brown has said she’s considering the suggestion.
"We know that we have a handful of counties across the state that have virtually no cases that we are aware of," the governor told OPB last week. "What we do need to have in place for them to open up is that they have to have the ability to test. They have to be able to test people who have symptoms and people who don't, who may be asymptomatic."
Walden said he supports a similar approach.
He also told "Think Out Loud" that his take on another issue that seems more clearly divided along party lines is not partisan — at least in his case.
Voting rights groups and many Democrats have been pushing to make mail voting available nationwide in response to the coronavirus pandemic, while Republicans and the president have opposed that effort, often citing concerns about voter fraud.
Though Walden is siding with his party, he said his view is based on pragmatism, rather than fraud concerns. The congressman said there’s not enough time to get a functional national vote-by-mail system in place by this November’s presidential election.
"We gave states half a billion dollars to make sure their software works and everything is going to be great to roll out unemployment benefits in a very timely manner," Walden said. "Look at the disaster in Oregon trying to get that done. We suddenly discover that we have a 30-year-old computer system … and then it breaks down repeatedly. I'm not going to put the validity of America's general election on the line by thinking every state is as good as Oregon, when it comes to elections."
When it comes to elections, however, Walden’s era of influence is nearing its conclusion. His political career began in 1981, when he served as a congressional staffer. Later, he was elected to the Oregon Legislature, and then, in 1998, to the U.S. Congress.
Now he's watching as eleven candidates vie for the Republican nomination to his seat, in hopes that his party will continue to win support of 2nd Congressional District voters. Five Democrats are also seeking primary nomination, in an effort to wrest the seat from Walden's party. Primary ballots are due May 19.
"Democracy is loud and messy. It still works, and I've had a great run and a great journey," the congressman said, as he reflected on the upcoming end to his political career. "It's important work. I hope whoever Republicans pick, Democrats pick, are people who are anchored in the values, culture and the life, and understand the core issues of that district and what makes it unique. I guess we'll see in a few weeks."
Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the number of candidates running in 2nd Congressional District primaries.