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Big Pharma’s Favorite Democrat Has a Tough Race in Oregon

Kurt Schrader helped bury prescription drug reform. And now he seems to have a tough primary next Tuesday.

Michael Brochstein/Getty Images
Oregon Representative Kurt Schrader

If you didn’t know better, you’d say Oregon Congressman Kurt Schrader has been running the kind of reelection campaign over the past few weeks that would satisfy every corner of the Democratic Party. If reelected, he’s promised to make a renewed push for lower prescription drug pricing. He’s promising to be a loyal ally of President Biden’s agenda. Schrader, who has represented Oregon’s 5th congressional district for over a decade, was even endorsed by the president—Joe Biden’s first congressional endorsement as a sitting president. 

This version of Schrader is the kind of candidate who should coast to reelection easily. But this version of Schrader is only a recent occurrence. For most of his time in Congress, he’s made his mark chiefly as a shameless friend of Big Pharma. Last year, he was the key leader who helped kill prescription drug pricing legislation—a key part of Biden’s Build Back Better agenda—in committee. And during that debate he carved out time to fundraise near Congress with members of the pharmaceutical industry.

Schrader hasn’t totally opposed legislation prioritized by the Biden administration, but he sure has slowed it down. He initially voted against the Biden administration’s American Rescue Plan before voting for it. Similarly, Schrader helped sink one drug pricing bill in the Energy and Commerce Committee as another similar proposal advanced through the Ways and Means Committee. Noticeably, all the while he’s raked in thousands of dollars from the pharmaceutical industry. Advocates of lowering drug pricing, which nearly all Democrats back and which is overwhelmingly popular, see the Oregon congressman as a major impediment to their goal.  

The seven-term congressman has a serious primary challenger—possibly the most serious he’s ever had as an incumbent—who has gained some momentum despite Schrader’s money, name recognition, and national support. Jamie McLeod-Skinner, an attorney and former interim city manager for Talent, Oregon, has been endorsed by both Senator Elizabeth Warren and party officials who represent four Oregon counties, including Schrader’s own Clackamas.

In an interview, McLeod-Skinner laid out her critique of Schrader’s time in office and especially his approach to prescription drug pricing. She pointed to Schrader joining with two other moderate Democrats along with Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee to block the drug pricing bill. That proposal would have let Medicare negotiate prescription drug prices.

McLeod-Skinner said she would have voted for that bill. “That’s how it’s done. Have a fair negotiation [with] drug manufacturers,” McLeod-Skinner said. “They have the cost of associated manufacturing. They have [the] right to a profit but not to just outright gouge people. The best way to do that is to have Medicare negotiate that. That’s the big threat, and that’s why he’s gotten $700,000 from Big Pharma.” McLeod-Skinner said Schrader recently has done an “entire rebranding and redefinition of himself that doesn’t match his record.” 

That, of course, isn’t how Schrader is portraying himself as he runs another term. “Congressman Schrader’s record of delivering results for Oregonians is clear. He has been a partner to the Biden Administration, helping to pass the Build Back Better Act that allows Medicare to negotiate prescription prices and cap the cost of insulin,” Schrader campaign spokeswoman Deborah Barnes said in a statement. The campaign said the congressman was not available for an interview.

It’s also not how Biden described the congressman when he endorsed him in late April. In that endorsement, Biden said Schrader “has been there for me” and “in doing so, he has helped pass much of my agenda into law—making a huge difference in the lives of the Oregonians he represents and all of America.”

In endorsing Schrader, Biden is not backing a tireless ally who’s taken hard votes to advance his agenda. He and the larger Democratic infrastructure are backing a candidate who has spurned or endangered some of the Democratic president’s proposals. The thinking seems to be that because the district teeters on the edge of Democratic control—the Cook Political Report rates it as just D+1, in a year when Democrats are bracing for losses—another, unknown Democratic nominee could lose it. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the national arm of the party for congressional races, has put Schrader’s race on its Frontline program, which means incumbents on the list get priority support from the DCCC in defense of their seat. McLeod-Skinner said that Biden’s endorsement “underscored to me … how weak Kurt is in the district.” 

Oregon Democrats have noticed a change in Schrader’s pitch, evidently in an effort to stanch any more bleeding of local support. “We can see the change in Schrader’s ads, that they’ve gotten more … I don’t know if ‘desperate’ is the right word, but they’ve certainly gone from being, ‘Hey, I’m a folksy veterinarian farmer’ to being ‘No, really, really, I’m getting big money out of the race. No, really, really, I care about pharma and health care,’” said Eileen Kiely, the vice chair of the Deschutes County Democratic Party, which is backing McLeod-Skinner. “He is clearly worried.” Kiely also said that Schrader campaigns “like a Republican—lots of TV, lots of mail.”

In the final weeks before the May 17 primary, Schrader has been dramatically outspending McLeod-Skinner. According to ad-tracking figures reviewed by The New Republic, Schrader has reserved over $3 million in advertising from the week of April 24 through the primary. The total spending in these media markets (Portland and Bend) for McCleod-Skinner totals about $313,000 for the same period. Schrader has substantially outraised McLeod-Skinner. According to OpenSecrets, his biggest donations come from the pharmaceutical industry and corporate America. McLeod-Skinner’s biggest donors have been outside groups like the National Organization for Women, L PAC, and the Working Families Party. Overall, Schrader has raised over $2.2 million while McLeod-Skinner has raised a little over $691,000.

McLeod-Skinner maintained the money difference won’t matter. “We’ve focused our resources with connecting with voters at this point. An early poll shows that we were pretty evenly split but had a third of voters to convince. It also showed very tellingly that he has very high negatives and I have high positives, which should’ve been something that Democrats factored in, going into the general,” she said, without naming the specific poll.   

Either way, the outcome of the primary fight acts as an indicator of a few different competing forces within the Democratic Party: the power of Elizabeth Warren’s endorsement (after a lackluster showing in the 2020 Democratic primary) versus Joe Biden’s endorsement; how effective a moderate incumbent congressman can be with a midcampaign rebranding of signature but unpopular policy positions (drug pricing); and the type of Democrat Oregonians outside of the major metropolitan areas crave (2022 has shaped up to be a campaign cycle of heated primaries in the state).

Oregon’s politics have become increasingly heated in recent years. This cycle, the Democratic primary in the 6th congressional district has been rattled by Sam Bankman-Fried, 30-year-old crypto billionaire, backing one of the seven candidates in that race. That endorsement seemed to have triggered the main establishment Democratic super PAC backing that candidate as well. It’s also transformed the race into a head-to-head matchup between Carrick Flynn, the political novice with support from Bankman-Fried, and Andrea Salinas, a candidate backed by prominent liberal and Latino groups. Recent polling shows the candidates neck-and-neck among the half-dozen Democrats vying for the nomination there.

The path for McLeod-Skinner to a seat in Congress depends on whether she makes this primary a referendum on Schrader’s siding with Big Pharma over drug pricing reformers. That’s the way she wins. If Schrader wins, the primary will be seen as an example of how establishment Democrats are willing to put up with a lot to retain some of the swingiest districts in the country, even when it includes tripping up their own legislative priorities.