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Oregon and national Dems battle over House primary support

Joe Biden and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee are backing one candidate. Local Democratic County parties are backing his more progressive opponent.
Jamie McLeod-Skinner and Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore.
Jamie McLeod-Skinner and Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore.NBC News / AP; Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Local Democrats in Oregon and national party officials are at odds with each other in a congressional primary, taking opposite sides in a battle between a moderate incumbent and a progressive challenger in a drastically redrawn district. 

The national party — including President Joe Biden — is backing Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., who is running for his eighth term in the rural and politically divided central Oregon district.

But local Democratic County chapters in the district took the highly unusual step of endorsing Schrader’s challenger, Jamie McLeod-Skinner, and are demanding that party bosses in Washington butt out.

Democratic chapters in several counties, which together represent about 90 percent of voters in the new 5th Congressional District, voted this year by large margins to endorse the more progressive McLeod-Skinner, a move they say is unprecedented.

“We are dismayed that the DCCC refuses to let Oregon Democrats decide who we want to represent us,” the local party chairs wrote to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in a letter obtained by NBC News. “We formally request that you immediately stop campaigning for Schrader in the primary election. Allow Oregon Democrats to choose who represents us in Congress.”

The DCCC typically supports incumbent members of Congress. But the local county parties argue that Schrader shouldn’t qualify, because, after redistricting, slightly more than half of the voters are new to the district and therefore never voted for Schrader.

“Kurt Schrader may be a dues-paying DCCC member, but he is not a true incumbent in the newly drawn OR-5,” the local Democratic chairs added in their letter, arguing that Schrader has lost touch with the district and should be replaced by a “solid Democrat.”

Schrader and his allies downplay the split, saying the progressive activists who typically get involved in local party politics aren’t representative of rank-and-file Democratic voters.

And they argue that Schrader is best positioned to win against Republicans in November in a district that leans only slightly Democratic.

“The reason why he has won this competitive district time and time again is because he can bring everyone together — rural, urban and suburban — to find common ground and deliver wins that make a real difference in the lives of all Oregonians,” said Deb Barnes, a spokesperson for Schrader.

The dust-up started when a DCCC organizer showed up in the district to help Schrader in the primary. The extra staffing angered many local activists, who have long simmered as Schrader, a deficit hawk unafraid to buck his party, took votes and made comments they oppose.

They were dismayed, for instance, that Schrader voted against a measure that would have allowed Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices and that he was one of only two Democrats to vote against initial passage of Biden’s $1.9 trillion pandemic relief bill, the American Rescue Plan.

Schrader apologized last year for referring to the effort to impeach former President Donald Trump after the Jan. 6 Capitol riot as a “lynching." He later voted to impeach Trump.

“The president said that Schrader agreed with him 96 percent of the time, but that 4 percent are issues that really matter in rural Oregon,” said Eileen Kiely, the vice chair of the Deschutes County Democrats, who said her party's vote to back McLeod-Skinner over Schrader was 75-3.

“Jamie is not a Bronx Democrat. She is a rural progressive,” she added. “The only reason that she is to the left of Schrader is because she’s a real Democrat.”

The Clackamas County Democrats, in Schrader’s home county, even compiled an eight-page memo outlining Schrader’s “opposition to many of the core values and objectives of the Democratic Party.”

Biden acknowledged in his endorsement that he and Schrader "don’t always agree,” but he added, "When it has mattered most, Kurt has been there for me.”

McLeod-Skinner responded to the endorsement by saying, “The fact that Schrader is calling in political favors from national Democrats shows he knows our campaign is working.”

The DCCC, however, isn’t backing down ahead of the May 17 primary.

“Congressman Schrader has been critical in advancing President Biden’s agenda,” said Johanna Warshaw, a spokesperson for the DCCC. “We need a candidate who can win in November and keep delivering on these critical issues, and Congressman Schrader is the person for the job.”

Meanwhile, a similar dynamic is playing out in Oregon’s newly created 6th Congressional District next door, where many local Democrats are aghast that a super PAC funded by the cryptocurrency billionaire Sam Bankman-Fried has poured more than $8 million into a crowded Democratic primary for the open seat, backing a previously little-known candidate.