In Oregon’s Democratic primaries, progressive and establishment wings battle for US House seats

PORTLAND, Ore. — Two Democratic primaries for U.S. House of Representatives seats in Oregon could help reveal whether the party’s voters are leaning more toward progressive or establishment factions in a crucial presidential election year.

The state’s Third Congressional District, which includes much of liberal Portland, will hold its first open Democratic primary since 1996 with the retirement of U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer.

Two candidates with similar platforms are leading the way in fundraising: Maxine Dexter, a physician and two-term state representative, and Susheela Jayapal, a former county commissioner backed by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. Jayapal is the sister of U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington state, chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

While outside money and claims of Republican interference have marked the race, national Democrats can safely bet on keeping the solidly blue district as they try to topple the Republican Party’s slim majority in the House of Representatives. Party leaders are looking more closely at the state’s 5th Congressional District, which will likely see one of the most competitive races in the country.

“This is one of the big swing districts nationally that both parties are really looking to keep or recapture the House,” said Ben Gaskins, associate professor of political science at Lewis. & Clark College, said of Oregon’s 5th district. “I think the big question is: To what extent will Democratic voters really prioritize electability?”

Democrats in Congress are eager to retake the 5th District after it was flipped by the Republican Party in 2022 for the first time in about 25 years and are backing Janelle Bynum. They see her as a better chance to win in November than Jamie McLeod-Skinner, the progressive who ousted the longtime Democratic moderate who held the seat in the 2022 midterm primaries and then lost to Republican Lori Chavez-DeRemer in the general elections, Gaskins. said.

“I think a lot of Democrats will hold that against her,” he said of McLeod-Skinner’s narrow defeat in 2022. “She had a chance. She lost.”

Key Democrats have endorsed Bynum, including Oregon Governor Tina Kotek and three of the state’s U.S. representatives.

The U.S. House Democrats’ fundraising arm, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, named Bynum to its “Red to Blue” program, noting that Bynum had previously defeated Chavez-DeRemer in legislative elections. The program provides organizational and financial support to Democrats committed to flipping Republican districts.

Meanwhile, a belated flood of spending from a political action committee on behalf of McLeod-Skinner has raised questions about whether Republicans are trying to tip the balance in favor of a more progressive candidate who they believe will be easier to beat in a general election.

Rep. Richard Hudson, chairman of the House Republican campaign arm, said he had no knowledge of Republican involvement in the Democratic primary.

The boundaries of the 5th District were significantly redrawn after the 2020 Census. It includes diverse regions spanning metropolitan Portland and its wealthy, working-class suburbs, as well as rural farming and mountain communities and the fast-growing city of Bend in central Oregon on the other side of the Cascade Range.

“I think candidates are trying to figure out exactly what the secret sauce is for this district because there are so many different interests here,” said Chris Koski, a professor of political science at Reed College in Portland.

McLeod-Skinner, an attorney who has served in multiple local governments, lives with her wife in central Oregon and profiles herself as someone who can bring rural and urban voters together. Her campaign website says that while attending high school in southern Oregon, she helped her family “by mucking out horse stalls and grinding hay.” This is her third time running for Congress.

Bynum, from Washington, D.C., was elected to the Oregon House in 2016, representing the suburbs southeast of Portland. She served on the chamber’s small business committee and owns four McDonald’s franchises.

Both women studied engineering and have similar policy positions. They support abortion protection, lower health care costs and fight climate change.

By late Friday, Bynum had outraised McLeod-Skinner by about $385,000. But much of the money in the race has come outside the spending of super PACs. Such groups cannot contribute directly to campaigns, but can spend unlimited amounts of money advertising for or against candidates.

A PAC called Mainstream Democrats spent nearly $380,000 supporting Bynum and the same amount against McLeod-Skinner, federal campaign finance filings show.

Although both candidates have engineering degrees, the 314 Action Fund, which says it focuses on electing Democrats with a science background to Congress, has spent more than $470,000 on ads and mailers supporting Bynum.

The super PAC has also invested heavily in Oregon’s 3rd District, spending nearly $2.2 million on ads supporting Dexter, a pulmonologist.

Another PAC, the recently formed Voters for Responsive Government, has spent $2.4 million fighting Jayapal.

Jayapal and McLeod-Skinner have criticized what they call “dark money” pouring into the races.

Jayapal has suggested that the 314 Action Fund spending in the 3rd District is linked to “MAGA Republican megadonors.” Her campaign manager, Andrea Cervone, said in an email that there is “a growing trend across the country of billionaires and millionaires with a history of donating to MAGA Republicans” funneling money into the Democratic primaries.

Cervone said the 314 Action Fund raised and spent much of its money in April, meaning the group doesn’t have to reveal its donors until the next federal filing deadline on May 20, the day before the election.

In a statement this month in response to the “dark money” comments, Dexter condemned the outside spending on ads targeting her opponent: “I do not tolerate or support these negative ads in any way and remain committed to a positive conversation.”

Dexter’s campaign has also recently gained momentum through direct contributions from individuals. She reported raising more than $218,000 in a single day earlier this month, including from donors who previously gave to Republican candidates and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, federal documents show.

Jayapal is touting himself as the first candidate in the race to call for a ceasefire in Gaza.

With the Democratic front-runners in each race largely sharing policy platforms, voters may have to choose based on style. Dexter and Bynum emphasize their legislative history, while Jayapal and McLeod-Skinner lean on their progressive endorsements, Gaskins said.

“That divide between pragmatism and idealism in the Democratic electorate, I think, is going to be the best way to tell them apart,” Gaskins said. “Is it about taking the boldest, progressive stance on these issues or about emphasizing the possibility of getting things done?”