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Primary Concerns

Kurt Schrader Could Be the Next Establishment Democrat Toppled by a Progressive Challenger

The Big Pharma–friendly congressman from Oregon’s 5th district is lagging Jamie McLeod-Skinner in Tuesday’s primary results. How big a bellwether is it for the left?

Oregon Rep. Kurt Schrader
Bill Clark/Getty Images
Oregon Representative Kurt Schrader

As of Wednesday morning, Oregon Democrat Kurt Schrader, who has represented the Beaver State’s 5th district since 2009, is trailing his progressive primary opponent, Jamie McLeod-Skinner. As The New Republic’s Daniel Strauss reported last week, this isn’t an entirely surprising development: Schrader went into the final week of this campaign an endangered incumbent, with his opponent highlighting his ties to the pharmaceutical industry and occasional unwillingness to help advance crucial parts of the Biden administration’s agenda. Should he fall, his loss would be the latest to follow a subplot from Tuesday night’s slate of primary contests, which offered some demonstration of the slackening grip moderate establishment Democrats have on the base of the party.

McLeod-Skinner, an attorney and former interim city manager for Talent, Oregon, unsuccessfully ran for Congress in 2018 and secretary of state in 2020. But her challenge to Schrader proved more successful, a development that progressives believe validates their theory of the case that Democratic voters want candidates who commit to left-wing values.

“Jamie McLeod-Skinner’s likely victory over Kurt Schrader—who was endorsed by the very president he undermined over and over again—should signal to every corporate-aligned Democrat that blocking a progressive Democratic agenda could end your political career,” said Stephanie Taylor, the co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, in a statement celebrating McLeod-Skinner’s lead.

Schrader was considered one of the most vulnerable Democrats up for reelection this year, designated a “frontliner” by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, or DCCC. Despite his occasional habit of bucking party orthodoxy, Schrader was endorsed by the DCCC and by President Joe Biden—Biden’s first endorsement as sitting president. “We don’t always agree, but when it has mattered most, Kurt has been there for me,” Biden said in April. (According to FiveThirtyEight, Schrader has voted in line with Biden’s priorities 96 percent of the time.)

But this obfuscates Schrader’s role in impeding some of Biden’s agenda: He was enough of a high-profile hindrance that McLeod-Skinner labeled him the “Joe Manchin of the House.” Schrader opposed a provision in the president’s social policy, tax, and climate legislation, last year, allowing the government to negotiate lower drug prices. Schrader helped craft new, more limited language and eventually voted for the roughly $2 trillion legislation on the House floor, but McLeod-Skinner hammered him for his initial committee vote opposing the drug pricing provision, noting his support from the pharmaceutical industry.

Schrader supported the decoupling of the bipartisan infrastructure law and social policy legislation called the Build Back Better Act, which later stalled in the Senate due to opposition from Manchin. During the tensest moments of these negotiations, he called Speaker Nancy Pelosi “truly a terrible person” to a group of donors who supported undermining the Build Back Better Act, according to a book by New York Times reporters Alexander Burns and Jonathan Martin. (Pelosi later endorsed him.)

This was not the first time in recent years that Schrader bucked Democratic leadership. After the January 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, he told party leaders that he opposed impeaching former President Donald Trump, likening it to a “lynching.” (A consulting firm cut ties with Schrader over this remark, and the congressman apologized for the comment and voted to impeach Trump.) Schrader also initially opposed Democrats’ wide-ranging coronavirus relief bill, the American Rescue Plan. In 2020, he voted against the PRO Act, a labor law reform bill, incurring the ire of local labor organizations in his district. He later supported it when it came to the floor again in 2021.

Schrader had the edge in fundraising, raising more than $2 million compared to the roughly half a million dollars raised by his opponent, and dramatically outspent McLeod-Skinner in the final weeks of the campaign. According to OpenSecrets, his biggest donors came from the pool of pharmaceutical firms and related corporate interests.

McLeod-Skinner’s campaign was boosted by a coterie of progressive groups and the endorsement of Senator Elizabeth Warren. But she also had the support of local stakeholders, earning the endorsement of several county Democratic Party organizations that would traditionally back the incumbent. Three county organizations also sent a letter to the DCCC urging them not to interfere in the primary. McLeod-Skinner also garnered support from several local unions.

Progressives argue that the race demonstrates the weakness of corporate interests when compared to the will of the voters. “We hope every corporate Democrat is watching this race, and taking note,” said Leah Greenberg, the co-founder and co–executive director of progressive group Indivisible, in a statement.* “Our momentum will continue to grow until it cracks the pipeline that siphons corporate money into our elections, and voters no longer have to fight against seemingly insurmountable odds for representation.”

But Schrader’s backers contended that a centrist candidate would be more likely to win the newly redrawn swing district in central Oregon than an avowed progressive like McLeod-Skinner. Dave Wasserman, an elections analyst for the Cook Political Report, tweeted on Tuesday evening that the rating for the district would go from “lean Democratic” to “toss-up” if McLeod-Skinner won. But McLeod-Skinner’s supporters note that Schrader underperformed Biden in the 2020 election. Moreover, McLeod-Skinner outperformed expectations in her unsuccessful 2018 bid and did well in Deschutes County, which now resides in the new 5th congressional district.

Schrader was not the only moderate Democrat who had a rough night on Tuesday. In Pennsylvania, Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman was elected the Democratic nominee for Senate, with Representative Conor Lamb falling far behind early in the evening. Summer Lee, a progressive candidate endorsed by Senator Bernie Sanders, was leading Steve Irwin in Pennsylvania’s 12th congressional district by a razor-thin margin as of Wednesday morning; Lee faced a barrage of attack ads funded by the United Democracy Project—the political action committee arm of American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC—in the latter weeks of her campaign.

The Oregon race is a potential warning sign for other incumbent Democrats facing progressive challengers, such as Representative Henry Cuellar of Texas. Like Schrader, Cuellar, one of the few remaining Democrats who opposes abortion rights, has been endorsed by the DCCC and Democratic leadership. But if establishment support was not enough to sway the race to Schrader, it could fall short for Cuellar as well.

* This story originally misidentified Leah Greenberg.