This election season, the national heat and headlines have focused on the presidential campaigns, and, as polls have turned against the GOP, on the chances that control of the U.S. Senate may flip to the Democrats.
In Oregon, and the Portland region especially, there’s virtually no suspense on either of those levels—the state is a lock for former Vice President Joe Biden, and for Democratic incumbent Senator Jeff Merkley.
But for those who like their backyard politics juicy, zoom in on two competitive congressional races, one in the Willamette Valley and one just over the border in Southwest Washington.
Note: Neither one has the potential to flip overall control of the U.S. House, which analysts overwhelmingly project will stay under Democratic auspices. But results in both could say a lot about changing demographics in our corner of the country.
Start to the south of Portland, in the state’s 4th Congressional District, where 73-year-old Rep. Peter DeFazio has held his seat for 33 years. For five elections, DeFazio had a relatively easy go against the same opponent: Art Robinson, a fervent opponent of climate change science best known for collecting thousands of vials of urine at his Southern Oregon research lab, which he believes hold the key to extending the human life span.
This cycle is different: DeFazio is facing a telegenic 28-year-old, Alek Skarlatos, a National Guard member best known for helping to thwart a terrorist attack on a French high-speed train. Skarlatos then went on to appear on Dancing with the Stars. (He did not win.)
What makes this race different? In a word, money. Skarlatos, who lives in Douglas County, has attracted heaps of it, from a GOP that senses opportunity. After all, Donald Trump came this close to winning the district—which covers Lane, Benton, Douglas, Coos and Curry Counties, plus a portion of Josephine—in 2016. Skarlatos, who has been running scathing ads against DeFazio, has raised an eye-popping $3.9 million, according to the mid-October filings with the Federal Election Commission.
DeFazio, who chairs the House Transportation Committee, has kept up, raising $3.2 million so far, and had more cash on hand by late September. The two have sparred in recent debates, including over the Trump administration’s coronavirus response, with Skarlatos rejecting a broad extension of federal unemployment benefits and DeFazio saying Congress needs to pass further relief for small businesses and those who’ve lost their jobs, including freelance workers.
National prognosticators still rate the race as “lean Democratic,” particularly given the advantages of incumbency and name recognition. But there’s a wild card factor to keep an eye on: DeFazio can usually count on a bump from left-leaning students attending Oregon State and the University of Oregon. But with many students learning from home this year, those votes are diluted at best.
Meanwhile, at 73, DeFazio might be nearing the end of his political career. If he survives this race and decides he doesn’t want to run again in 2022, that opens the door for a true toss-up that could attract even more national attention.
In fact, Oregon could have three intriguing Congressional campaigns in 2022, after nearly a decade of relative stability, post the David-Wu-in-a-tiger-suit era. After the most recent census count is tallied, the state is expected to add a brand-new Congressional seat, most likely in the metro area. And, in 2022, longtime Rep. Earl Blumenauer of Portland, 72, could also choose to retire, leaving a tempting safe seat target for Portland-area progressive politicos, of whom there are many.
Just over the Washington border, meanwhile, there is another race that’s not quite as present on the national political radar, despite drawing significant focus back in 2018. That’s the rematch between Republican incumbent Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler and challenger Carolyn Long, a professor at Washington State University in Vancouver. The two clashed at a recent debate over the Paris Climate Accord agreement, with Long saying the country should remain in the coalition, and Herrera Beutler supporting the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from it. They’ve also differed over health care—Long says she supports a “public option” in addition to employer backed health care, while Herrera Beutler does not.
The district is the rarest of the rare, a true swing district. The population center of Vancouver and its fast-growing suburbs are purple, but the rest of the district, including Cowlitz and Lewis Counties—home to many of the white, blue collar voters who have flocked to Trump—is trending more Republican.
In this case, it’s the incumbent who has more cash on hand. According to the FEC, Herrera-Beutler's campaign has $1.7 million in the bank, while Long’s has just $257,476 left unspent, though the two candidates have paced each other in fund-raising, with Herrera-Beutler at $3.8 million and Long at $3.4 million.
And like the DeFazio-Skarlatos race, national election-watchers think this one tips toward the incumbent—it’s rated “likely R” by the Cook Political Report.