What are they smoking?
That was my first thought when I learned Republicans think Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR) and Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-OR) will be vulnerable in 2018.
The National Republican Congressional Committee’s Chairman Steve Stivers announced on Feb. 8 that DeFazio and Schrader would be among the party’s initial 36 offensive targets in the House of Representatives for the 2018 midterm elections.
The Committee’s goal is to keep Republicans in control of the House
so they can pursue their agenda in areas such as healthcare reform, a stronger national defense, and job growth.
DeFazio has represented Oregon’s 4th Congressional District since 1987. The district, in the southwest portion of Oregon, includes Coos, Curry, Douglas, Lane, and Linn counties and parts of Benton and Josephine counties.
In his first race, DeFazio won with 54.3 percent of the vote. He won his next 16 races with comfortable leads, with a high of 85.8 percent in 1990 and a low of 54.6 percent in 2010. After a 2011 re-districting gave Democrat-heavy Corvallis to the 4th district, DeFazio won 59.1- 39 percent.
Democrats figured the Corvallis shift guaranteed DeFazio a permanent seat and his seat did seem safe when he won in 2014 with 58.6 percent and in 2016 with 55.5 percent.
Further hurting Republicans has been their failure to put up a strong opponent.
With a weak bench, the Republicans have run the same man, Art Robinson, against DeFazio in each of the past four elections. You’d think they would have learned. The first time, 2010, Robinson lost by 10 points, the second time by 20, the third by 21, the fourth by almost 16.
So, is DeFazio really vulnerable as the National Republican Congressional Committee believes? Maybe.
Consider how Donald Trump did in DeFazio’s district.
Trump handily defeated Hillary Clinton in Coos, Curry, Douglas, Linn and Josephine counties. In Douglas county, Trump racked up 64.6 percent of the vote versus Clinton’s 26.3 percent.
Hillary carried only two liberal enclaves, Lane County, home of the University of Oregon, and part of Benton County, home of Oregon State University, but that was enough.
In the end, Hillary barely carried the 4th District with just 46.1 percent of the vote versus Trump’s 46 percent, a margin of just 554 votes.
That suggests the Republican problem is their candidate and his/her messaging, not the dominance of Democrats.
If the Republicans could recruit a strong moderate candidate able to make persuasive arguments, DeFazio could be in trouble.
As for Schrader, he has represented Oregon’s 5th Congressional District since 2008. The district, in the northwestern portion of Oregon, includes Lincoln, Marion, Polk, and Tillamook counties as well as portions of Benton, Clackamas, and Multnomah counties.
In his first race, Schrader won with 54 percent of the vote. He won his subsequent races with 51.3 percent, 54 percent, 53.7 percent, and 53.5 percent. In 2011, the Oregon State Legislature approved a new map of congressional districts based on updated population information from the 2010 census, but it hasn’t had a meaningful impact on Schrader.
In 2016, Trump took Marion, Polk and Tillamook counties. Clinton carried Lincoln, Benton, Clackamas, and Multnomah counties, winning heavily populated Multnomah 73.3 to 17 percent. In the end, Clinton carried the 5th District with 48.3 percent of the vote versus Trump’s 44.1 percent.
Schrader’s winning margins to date have been consistent and comfortable, but not breathtaking. They would likely have been higher without the presence of multiple other party candidates in the general elections, who have been draining principally liberal votes. In 2016, for example, the Pacific Green Party took 3.4 percent of the votes. In 2014, three other parties captured a total of 6.7 percent of the vote.
Although voter registration trends aren’t consistently matching actual election trends, Schrader’s district is becoming increasingly Democratic, though also more non-affiliated.
In Nov. 2012, there were 158,885 registered Democrats, 148,464 Republicans and 89,539 non-affiliated voters in the district. By Nov. 2016, it had shifted to 176,868 registered Democrats, 155,430 registered Republicans and 135,233 non-affiliated voters.
Is Schrader as vulnerable as the National Republican Congressional Committee believes? I don’t think so. Even though he’s been in Congress fewer terms than DeFazio, his district is likely safer for a Democrat, and becoming more so.
How about DeFazio?
I know, he’s been in office for 30 years and just keeps rolling along, seemingly invincible. But I think he’s more vulnerable than he looks. He hasn’t so much been winning as the Republicans have been losing with uninspiring, ideologically rigid candidates.
My advice to the National Republican Congressional Committee. Don’t divide your limited resources in an effort to capture both seats. Instead, focus on finding a strong moderate candidate to run against DeFazio in 2018, building a war chest sufficient for a credible race and running a sophisticated campaign.
Dennis Richardson showed a Republican can win in Oregon. If the right things fall in place, the 4th District could be next.