Rural Democrat, suburban Republican duke it out in Oregon’s 5th Congressional District

Redistricting was supposed to give voters in central Oregon a Democratic representative in Congress, something they haven’t had since Jimmy Carter’s presidency. 

Instead, a national political climate that favors Republicans appears increasingly likely to give the GOP its second congressional seat in Oregon. Democrat Jamie McLeod-Skinner, an attorney and regional emergency manager from central Oregon, is locked in a close battle with Republican Lori Chavez-DeRemer, the former mayor of Happy Valley. Either could make history – McLeod-Skinner as the state’s first LGBTQ congressperson and Chavez-DeRemer as its first Latina in Congress. 

It’s one of dozens of races across the country – and three in Oregon – that could help decide whether Republicans control the House for the last two years of President Joe Biden’s term. 

The redrawn 5th Congressional District stretches from the suburbs of Portland across farmland in Marion and Linn counties and over the Cascades to scoop up the Deschutes County cities of Bend, Redmond and Sisters. Following redistricting, Salem is now in the 6th Congressional District.

Biden won it by 9 points in 2020 – a smaller margin of victory than he had in four other Oregon districts, but significant enough that legislative Republicans and nonpartisan analysts decried the district as a gerrymander. 

“What’s unique about Oregon this year is we have these two seats that may lean Democrat in a normal year, but these national trends are really pushing them up for grabs and potentially even into the Republican column,” said Neil O’Brian, a political science professor at the University of Oregon.

Last week, a national Democratic group shifted close to $500,000 in planned ad spending for the 5th District to the 6th, where Democratic state Rep. Andrea Salinas is in a close race with Republican logistics consultant Mike Erickson. And on Wednesday, national analysts at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics reclassified the 5th District as “leans Republican.” In his analysis, Kyle Kondik described the district as a “real headache for Democrats.” 

“​​Democrats drew a gerrymander in Oregon designed to get them five of the state’s six seats, but it just seems like things are going poorly enough for them in the state that they won’t get there,” Kondik wrote. 

Judy Stiegler, a political science professor at Oregon State University-Cascades and a former state representative from Bend, said the race remains way too close to predict. McLeod-Skinner has a strong base in Deschutes County, which has about one-quarter of the district’s registered voters and has trended toward Democrats in recent elections. Chavez-DeRemer is from Clackamas County, home to about 40% of the district’s voters. Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans in Clackamas County.

Nonaffiliated voters are the largest group in the district, and it’s hard to predict how they’ll vote or even if they will. Both McLeod-Skinner and Chavez-DeRemer have moderated their positions since the May primary, Stiegler said. 

“You’ve got your far right, far left, but the big bulk of voters are that group in between,” she said. “They’ve got to be able to appeal to the issues and all the concerns that great sort of sea of people is looking at, rather than just their folks because they’ll never make it if they don’t bring in a good percentage of that non-affiliated pool.”

 Jamie McLeod-Skinner, the Democratic nominee in Oregon’s 5th Congressional District, listens in an undated campaign photo. (Provided)

Jamie McLeod-Skinner, Democrat

McLeod-Skinner first gained widespread attention in her 2018 race against then-U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Oregon, in the deeply Republican 2nd Congressional District. She lost, but she performed 10 points better than any previous Democratic candidate in the vast eastern Oregon district, capturing nearly 40% of the vote. 

“I ran before to push back and make a point,” McLeod-Skinner said. “This time, this is an evenly drawn district. It’s a purple district. It’s a microcosm of our state, a microcosm of our country.”

The new district brought a different group of voters, but the issues are similar to those she faced before, McLeod-Skinner said. Wildfire risks and recovery in the Santiam Canyon are akin to the wildfire recovery she led when she was interim city manager of Talent in southern Oregon; concerns around homelessness, gun safety, fires and clashes between urban and rural Oregon exist throughout the district. 

McLeod-Skinner is more progressive than Rep. Kurt Schrader, the conservative Democrat she unseated in the May primary, and pundits speculate that she may be too far left for a swing district. She said she focuses on building relationships – something she and her wife do with their conservative neighbors on their ranch in rural Jefferson County. 

“What I have found in meeting with folks, in the most urban progressive and rural conservative parts of our state, is that we all want to be able to put a roof over our head and food on our table,” McLeod-Skinner said. “We want opportunities for our kids. We want health care for our families. We want safe communities. That includes both being able to go safely into your school and your grocery store and also not having our homes burned down and not having our family farms going under.”

She said Congress should work to immediately bring down costs for prescription drugs, fuel, housing and child care, while also planning long-term investments in the energy grid, infrastructure and education.

McLeod-Skinner plans to introduce something she calls the Civilian GI Bill – legislation that would allow young people to sign a promissory note for higher education and then commit to working in fields where they’re needed. It would resemble the commitment students of military academies make: They receive tuition-free education, but commit to serving in the armed forces. 

McLeod-Skinner said Congress should protect the right to an abortion, making it clear that only a pregnant woman, in consultation with her doctor, should control whether to end a pregnancy. She said codifying the abortion rights protections in Roe v. Wade, which Biden pledged to do, is the minimum standard.

Roe guaranteed a constitutional right to an abortion until a fetus could be considered old enough to live outside the womb – starting at about 23 or 24 weeks. Abortions after that point have long been legal in Oregon, but they’re exceedingly rare and almost always occur because a woman’s or fetus’ life or health are in serious danger. 

Abortion is a personal issue to McLeod-Skinner: Her wife, Cass, needed abortion care while bleeding after a miscarriage. The couple believe that Cass would have died if she and her doctors faced the type of restrictions in place in other states.

Their marriage is another reason why McLeod-Skinner doesn’t feel comfortable with arguments to leave decisions about abortion up to individual states. Until a 2015 Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide, the McLeod-Skinners couldn’t have been married in many states. It took until 2020 for the court to affirm that employees couldn’t be fired simply for being gay or trans. 

Chavez-DeRemer has attacked McLeod-Skinner for wanting to defund police, which McLeod-Skinner described as an inaccurate criticism. Former Bend Police Chief Jim Porter recorded an ad dismissing those attacks as “ridiculous” and criticizing Chavez-DeRemer for defending people who attacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. During a primary debate on Bend TV station KTVZ, Chavez-DeRemer described rioters being held without bail as “even more shocking” than the attempted insurrection itself. 

 Lori Chavez-DeRemer, the Republican nominee in the 5th Congressional District, listens in an undated campaign photo. (Provided)

Lori Chavez-DeRemer, Republican

The former mayor of Happy Valley said she ran because she felt Oregonians were as tired as she was with one-party rule. She previously ran for state House in 2016 and 2018 and lost in a heavily Democratic district. 

“I have brought communities together in the past,” Chavez-DeRemer said. “While that attempt was not successful, this one will be.” 

Like McLeod-Skinner, Chavez-DeRemer said voters’ top issues are the same throughout the district. They’re worried about high crime, inflation and the economy, she said, though the issues may manifest differently in suburban or rural areas. 

Chavez-DeRemer has made crime and support for police a focus of her campaign, though she acknowledged that decisions about police funding are made at the local level. 

“One of the things that we’ve talked about in Congress is making sure that we can lead our public safety officers with support,” she said. “More funding, maybe directly to the cities, hiring more police officers throughout the country, making sure they have the resources that they need to do exactly what the community expects them to do.” 

She said relaxing energy regulations and restoring a federal permit for the Keystone XL Pipeline are among her top priorities to ease economic struggles. Biden on his first day in office denied a permit that would have allowed TC Energy to transport 830,000 barrels of oil from Canadian tar sands to Texas by way of a new pipeline through Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska. 

Plans for the since-canceled Keystone XL Pipeline would have resulted in most oil being exported overseas. Chavez-DeRemer said restoring it would result in American energy independence and lower gas prices, and lower gas prices could result in lower prices for other goods transported by trucks.  

“Over the next decade when we can have a more vibrant energy sector we can transition into others, whether we’re talking about electricity, whether we’re talking about natural gas,” Chavez-DeRemer said. “We could fortify those, but right now, immediately, we need to make sure that we have energy independence right here in our own country and (we’re) not dependent on other countries.” 

She said she didn’t want to see Congress take up national legislation about abortion. When pressed, Chavez-DeRemer said she wouldn’t vote for a national abortion ban – though she previously indicated support of a ban beginning around six weeks of pregnancy, the first point at which doctors can detect electrical activity in what would become a heart. 

“I think the right approach for Congress is to leave it exactly with the Dobbs case, back to the states,” Chavez-DeRemer said. “Now Oregonians are going to have an opportunity to decide how they want to continue down that road, but I don’t want to see it on the floor of Congress.” 

Chavez-DeRemer said she was attacked in the Republican primary for not being an ardent enough opponent of abortion and now faces attacks for her not being a supporter of abortion rights. She said opponents seek to portray her as an extremist, but no one who knows her agrees would label her that way. 

“I will serve whether the winds are at the forefront or at my back because I’m a good fit for this district in working hard and bringing people together,” she said. 

Name: Jamie McLeod-Skinner

Age: 55

Party: Democrat

Residence: Terrebonne

Profession: attorney and regional emergency coordinator

Funds raised as of Sept. 30: $2.7 million

Cash on hand as of Sept. 30: $664,000

Key endorsements: The Oregonian/OregonLive, The (Bend) Bulletin, Independent Party of Oregon, Planned Parenthood Advocates of Oregon, U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden, Jeff Merkley and Elizabeth Warren

Name: Lori Chavez-DeRemer

Party: Republican

Age: 53

Residence: Happy Valley

Profession: owner of an anesthesiology and wellness business

Funds raised as of Sept. 30: $1.9 million

Cash on hand as of Sept. 30: $376,000

Key endorsements: U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-New York; conservative radio host Lars Larson; National Federation of Independent Business Federal PAC, Ironworkers Local 29, North Clackamas Chamber of Commerce

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Julia Shumway is deputy editor of Oregon Capital Chronicle and has reported on government and politics in Iowa and Nebraska, spent time at the Bend Bulletin and most recently was a legislative reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times in Phoenix. An award-winning journalist, Julia most recently reported on the tangled efforts to audit the presidential results in Arizona.