OREGON NEWS: With lines still uncertain, congressional hopefuls slow to announce campaigns

SALEM – In the week since the Oregon Legislature eked out new congressional maps, would-be candidates have largely stayed mum about their potential campaigns.

A handful of candidates have already announced their campaigns, but no one can officially file to run for Congress or the state Legislature until after the new maps take effect. Candidates for other offices were able to start filing Sept. 9. Critics have the opportunity to force changes to the new maps through lawsuits, though none has yet been filed. 

Challenges to the congressional plan that created the state’s 6th House District must be filed in Marion County Circuit Court by Tuesday, Oct. 12, and a panel of five retired judges would rule on those challenges. Those judges could end up creating their own map, or reaffirm the Legislature’s decision, in which case the state Supreme Court would make a final ruling – and could draw its own map. 

If there aren’t any legal challenges, the new maps would take effect Jan. 1, 2022. But if legal battles drag on, congressional hopefuls might be waiting until Feb. 7 – just one month before the March 8 filing deadline – to learn the final boundaries. 

So far, no one has filed a formal complaint – but political watchers expect them and say potential candidates might wait to announce until after they know for sure what the districts will look like.

Congressional hopefuls saw district boundaries change so dramatically over a single weekend of legislative horsetrading that they’re waiting for assurances before declaring campaigns, said Jason Burge, chairman of the Deschutes County Democratic Party.

“I think people are at least a little afraid to jump the gun,” Burge said. “On that Saturday when these new maps were proposed, we were in this district that we’re currently in, but the day before, we were in a district that went up through Madras and through Hood River and into Gresham, and Representative Blumenauer’s district.”

GOP political consultant Reagan Knopp said he expects to see a lawsuit from either a voter or the National Republican Congressional Committee about the congressional districts being a “pretty aggressive Democratic gerrymander.” While Oregon’s current congressional maps contain two solidly Democratic districts, two swing districts and one deep-red district, the new maps have four Democratic-leaning districts, one Republican district and one that could be considered a tossup. 

Knopp said most Republican state lawmakers he talked to have said they’re not running for Congress at this point. 

All five current congressional representatives have continued fundraising and given no indication that they plan to retire. Four of the five – Democrats Suzanne Bonamici, Earl Blumenauer and Peter DeFazio and Republican Cliff Bentz – are ensconced in safe districts and are unlikely to face serious challenges.

But U.S. Rep. Kurt Schrader, a Democrat from Canby, is now in the state’s one swing district. He could choose to run in the newly created 6th Congressional District, which contains Salem and areas southwest of Portland that were previously in his district, or stay in the 5th Congressional District and try to convince voters in Linn and Deschutes counties who have never before seen his name on their ballots to support his campaign.

A Schrader campaign spokeswoman said via email that he is running again but has no further information. Regardless of the district he chooses, he’s sure to face challenges from both the left and right. 

Progressives object to Schrader’s record as one of the most conservative Democrats in Congress, and his January comments comparing impeaching then-President Donald Trump to “lynching” and September vote to block a bill to lower prescription drug prices didn’t sit well.

In the new district, Schrader would face a contested primary. So far, former Multnomah County Commissioner Loretta Smith is the only Democrat in the race, but The Oregonian reported Tuesday that state Rep. Andrea Salinas – chair of the Oregon House committee that drew the new maps – plans to run. 

Smith worked for U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden for more than 20 years before running for the Multnomah board. She declared her candidacy before lawmakers drew maps, reasoning that she could represent Oregonians anywhere.  

If Schrader sticks with his home district, he’ll also likely face a serious primary. Jamie McLeod-Skinner, the 2018 Democratic nominee for Congress in Eastern Oregon’s expansive 2nd Congressional district and a 2020 candidate for secretary of state, confirmed that she’s considering a campaign in the 5th district.

McLeod-Skinner’s home in Jefferson County is just outside of the district boundaries, but congressional candidates aren’t required to reside in their home districts. She has strong support in Bend, the biggest urban area in the newly drawn district, and local Democrats are bullish about her chances against Schrader and Republicans if she runs. 

“Part of incumbency is people recognizing a name on a ballot,” Burge said. “The majority of the people in this new district have never voted for him. To me, Representative Schrader would be entering the race like anyone else.” 

Knopp said the redrawn 5th district will be a top target for national Republicans who want to win back the majority in the House they lost in 2018. 

“Being an open seat attracts even more qualified and more experienced Republicans if they don’t have to take on Schrader,” he said. “But I think that the (National Republican Congressional Committee) at the national level is focused on winning a congressional majority, and I think that they’ll probably put the fifth district pretty high on their list regardless of Schrader or an open seat.” 

Legislative candidates have been less shy about announcing their campaigns or intent, though they also can’t file to run yet. Democratic Reps. Brad Witt of Clatskanie and Brian Clem of Salem announced that they won’t run again, after Clem was drawn into the same district as a Republican colleague and Witt’s district was redrawn to favor Republicans.

Challenges to legislative maps must be filed directly with the Oregon Supreme Court by Monday, Oct. 25. None have yet been filed. 

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