U.S. Rep. Chavez-DeRemer treads careful path in tough district
In 2022, Oregon’s 5th Congressional District race was the least predictable major contest in the state, and now it looks much the same for 2024.
Both the national Cook Political Report and the Sabato Crystal Ball already label it a toss up – a rarity for a contest in which an incumbent is expected to run for re-election.
It’s a fair call. This is a seat in an area long represented for the most part in Congress by Democrats, now held by a narrowly-elected Republican, Lori Chavez-DeRemer. Democrats are prowling the contest hungrily, and the contest should be expected to be fierce.
The earliest indicators of what to watch for involve how the been positioned herself well for the upcoming contest. That doesn’t mean – as many people are quick to assume – that everything she’s done was undertaken for that reason. But the effects of most of what she has done have made her position more, rather than less, defensible.
Members of Congress have two areas of conflict to deal with: from within their party, and from without. Chavez-DeRemer has seen examples of in-party risks close at hand as recently as 2022: A Democratic representative, Kurt Schrader, was defeated in his party’s primary in her district; and a Republican incumbent from a district only a few miles north (Jaime Herrera Beutler, in Washington’s 3rd) lost her primary there.
The first test this year for Chavez-DeRemer came in the selection of a House speaker. She stuck with the party’s leadership and now-Speaker Kevin McCarthy, likely the sensible move for the longer term, though some activists in her party might have preferred otherwise.
Her initial speech on the House floor was short but carefully curated to include Republican campaign talking points likely to win support among her troops back home in its blue-state critique: “We need to get our economy back on track, secure the border, support safe immigration and reduce homelessness and drug overdoses. A report from the National Drug Helpline ranked Oregon worst in the nation for drug problems.
“Oregon is number one in drug use, and number 50 in drug treatment,” she said. “I frequently hear from moms and families who are begging their leaders to please pay attention to this fentanyl crisis. The drug cartels have insisted on taking our children from us.”
That opening speech, while not overtly partisan, has been an outlier, overall, she has been no simple purveyor of partisan red meat. Rather, she seems to have borne in mind the need to appeal as well to independents and Democrats in a district that leans slightly away from her party.
She has appeared and worked with other members of the Oregon delegation, notably Democrats.
She tweeted a picture with 1st District Democrat Suzanne Bonamici, saying (even offering a positive note about the Biden administration in the process), “This morning I attended the president’s announcement nominating Julie Su for Labor Secretary alongside @RepBonamici. If confirmed, I’m hopeful that we can work together to help workers succeed.”
Chavez-DeRemer is a member of the House Agriculture Committee, alongside fellow Oregon newcomer – and Democrat – Andrea Salinas. (The national prognosticators figure Salinas’sDistrict 6 as learning Democratic.) They jointly issued a statement about the upcoming Farm Bill activities, asking for Oregon feedback on the subject.
“Agricultural production is the heartbeat of Oregon’s rural economy, and we look forward to working hand-in-hand with our producers and hardworking families to craft a beneficial and effective Farm Bill that will set Oregonians up for success over the next five years,” they said, striking a bipartisan chord.
She also has moved in a bipartisan way on other subjects, such as on a bill concerning student loans with sponsors across the aisle. (If you get the impression she seems a little more than average visible as a House member, you’re probably right.)
There’s also her response – actually, two responses – to President Joe Biden’s State of the Union speech.
Her first statement on Feb. 7 called it a “mixed bag,” with some praise interwoven with criticism of national problems.
Her second, two days later, took a different approach and was more affirmative: ““Despite the partisan bickering that often dominates headlines, it’s important for us to remember –especially after the State of the Union – that we as Americans have much more in common that unites us than divides us. Oregonians have an optimistic spirit. And on my first day in office, it was with that spirit in mind that I committed to rising above the partisan bickering and typical D.C. gridlock – promising to work with anyone who’s interested in delivering results that benefit Oregonians and all Americans. I agree that we can work together to expand American-made products, improve our nation’s infrastructure, counter China, tackle the fentanyl crisis and ensure veterans receive the care they deserve.”
Not everything is under her control. The caucus running the U.S. House has been and likely will be prone to controversy and unforced errors, and Chavez-DeRemer will be held to account for the fact that her control of the seat helps give the Republican Party control of the chamber.
She also can’t control what the Democrats do, which likely will include a strong campaign.
But so far, she’s handled smartly what she can control.