One of the largest U.S. congressional districts voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump in 2016, yet an Oregon Democrat campaigning against a Republican incumbent doesn’t see it as hostile territory.
Buoyed by electoral wins by a couple of Democrats elsewhere in Trump territory, candidate Jamie McLeod-Skinner is undaunted, traveling the district – that’s as big as North Dakota – in her Jeep, pulling a tiny trailer that she sometimes sleeps in. McLeod-Skinner is enduring all this because she doesn’t think the incumbent is focused on the district’s issues.
When a parade in the small town of Joseph (population 1,000) was set to start in July, she walked up to an antique convertible carrying Rep. Greg Walden, who’s running for his 11th term, and challenged him to a series of debates.
“I look forward to debating you. We’ll figure out a schedule that works,” Walden replied. Five weeks later, a debate has not been scheduled.
Nationally, Democrats are hoping a “blue wave” in November will give them a majority in Congress. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is financing selected candidates through its Red to Blue program , hoping to flip seats in Republican-controlled districts.
McLeod-Skinner’s campaign isn’t one of them. If the Red to Blue’s 73 candidates are long shots, ones like McLeod-Skinner — running in very conservative districts — are real Hail Marys.
Walden, who typically wins around 70 percent of the vote, had a war chest currently totaling around $3.2 million in late June — 31 times bigger than McLeod-Skinner’s.
“The biggest issue is the disparity in fundraising,” said Jeff Dense, professor of political science at Eastern Oregon University. Without money, she can’t afford a media campaign, Dense said, noting that eastern Oregon is peppered with Walden campaign signs.
“I just drove by one in east nowhere,” he said in a telephone interview.
In an interview at a coffee shop in Redmond — the town near where McLeod-Skinner and her wife live — the candidate said she felt compelled to run because “our current representative is not focused on the district, not addressing the issues that folks in my district care about: health care, education, economic development.”
She downplayed the funding factor.
“It’s not about a TV spot or sending out fliers,” McLeod-Skinner said, wearing faded jeans, red work shirt and scuffed cowboy boots. “It’s about showing up. It’s about listening to folks with respect and hearing the issues that people are concerned about.”
She accuses Walden of not speaking out for his constituents, including failing to oppose President Trump’s trade war that risks increasing tariffs on Oregon wheat. Walden last year also advocated the repeal of the Affordable Care Act.
“His attack on health care would hurt one in five people in our district,” McLeod-Skinner said.
McLeod-Skinner, who has degrees in engineering, regional planning and in law, distances herself from city Democrats, often derided here as liberal elites from Portland, uninformed about challenges in this sparsely populated, agricultural-ranching region. She calls herself a rural Democrat, with loyalty to constituents outweighing party loyalty. She’s not big on gun control, for example.
“Some Democrats felt I was not far enough to the left in the primary,” said the former Santa Clara, California, city councilor. Her stance resonated. She beat six other candidates in the Democratic primary for Oregon’s 2nd District, taking 43 percent of the vote.
Only registered Democrats and Republicans can vote in their own party’s primaries. In the Republican one, Walden got more votes than all seven Democrats combined.
Walden did not respond to requests for an interview. His spokesman, Justin Discigil, said in an email that Walden has raised concerns directly with the administration about the impact of tariffs on Oregon agriculture. Discigil also defended Walden on health care, saying he extended the Children’s Health Insurance Program and responded to the opioid crisis.
McLeod-Skinner’s role models are Cheri Bustos, a Democrat who beat a Republican by 20 points in an Illinois district that narrowly chose Trump in 2016; and Connor Lamb, a Pennsylvania Democrat who won a House seat in Trump territory in a special election in March.
“I think we have an opportunity to absolutely shock people,” McLeod-Skinner said. “Eastern Oregon’s not blue and I’m not looking to turn eastern Oregon blue. I’m looking to represent the folks in my district who are not represented.”
She’s crisscrossed the high desert, forests and mountains of the 70,000-square-mile (180,000- square-kilometer) district — the second-biggest in America among states with multiple districts. She’s heard voters’ concerns about lack of economic development, health care and educational opportunities. She supports exchanging public service for college or trade school educations.
On the campaign trail, she sleeps in a teardrop trailer outfitted with a mattress, sometimes taking it onto the wide, empty spaces of Bureau of Land Management land. After the hour-long interview, she began a long drive to her next campaign stop. She’s driven 35,000 miles (56,300 kilometers) in 14 months of campaigning.
McLeod-Skinner is the strongest Democratic candidate Walden has faced, said James Foster, professor emeritus of political science at Oregon State University-Cascades. He predicts McLeod-Skinner will take about half the vote in November, and could win.
“She has a real knack of connecting with people,” Foster said.
Even so, it’s hard to achieve name recognition in a district so vast.
Alan Kartchner, who lives in the eastern Oregon town of Burns and usually votes Republican, told a reporter he didn’t know Walden’s challenger’s name or her platform.
“We spend way too much time on national level politics, all of this hyperbole,” Kartchner said. “I think we’d all be better off paying attention to what’s going on in the state and county. I’m interested in hearing what she has to say.”