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Democrat Faces Uphill Climb In Ore.'s Republican-Leaning 2nd District

Oregon’s 2nd Congressional District is a Republican stronghold. The GOP has held the seat since early 1981, and that likely won’t change this November.

This year’s Democratic challenger is hoping to make inroads by positioning herself as a moderate alternative on issues such as the economy and natural resources.

The state's 2nd Congressional District is a massive hunk of real estate covering the entire state east of the Cascades and curving to include the Interstate 5 corridor in the far south. The distances between people and places are wide – which is how you could describe Congressman Greg Walden’s margin of victory in the past eight elections

"He never takes an election for granted," says Wayne Vos, one of dozens of Walden supporters filling a small banquet hall recently at the Scottish Rite Center in Medford. "He’s out there working. Problem solver. Just basically the kind of guy you’d like living next door.”

At the campaign event, Rep. Walden good-naturedly ribs Vos for wearing the opposing team’s colors – a blue shirt and hat. Still, Vos walks out with a large yard sign supporting Walden, who has reached a level of prominence in the Republican controlled House of Representatives.

"There are only eight members of the House who have passed more of their own bills than I have, and nearly every one of them is a full committee chair," Walden says.

This success in the House, Walden’s experience and the fact that none of his challengers has ever received more than 35 percent of the vote has catapulted him into the high ranks of Republican Party leadership. Walden chairs the National Republican Congressional Committee. He’s tasked with getting GOP candidates around the country elected to the House of Representatives – not something you can do if you need to run a tough campaign back home.

Now enter challenger Aelea Christofferson of Bend, who’s positioning herself as a middle-of-the-road Democrat.

"I’m probably the most centrist candidate this district has ever had," she says.

Christofferson talks up her 23 years of business experience at a campaign stop with the Ashland Main Street Alliance, a progressive-leaning group of business owners.

She says the federal government can cause problems for small businesses. It’s an issue fresh in her mind. The sale of her own company to another business had been delayed more than six months because of hold-ups at the Small Business Administration.

"A business that would have produced more jobs since February because of the combination of our two companies, instead we’ve had an opening for a while, because I keep thinking I shouldn’t fill this opening," Christofferson says. "I should have the new owner do this hire."

This pro-business lens is something she shares with the incumbent, as well as the desire for more local control when it comes to Oregon’s natural resources. Much of the economy of the 2nd District is directly linked to the land – industries like agriculture, ranching and forestry. Rep. Walden has co-sponsored legislation that would increase timber harvests and bring some federal lands under state control.

Walden: "I think we could show the country how to do it better than what we’re seeing out of the Forest Service and the federal laws, that leave us with inaction. That leave us with overstocked, bug-infested, diseased stands of trees that are dying, and they just burn up and nothing happens after that."

Christofferson: "There’s probably not a huge amount of light between Walden and I on what we believe about that."

Both candidates also support the work of forest restoration collaboratives, models of local decision-making where communities have a stake in how their forests are used.

But Christofferson has worked to distinguish herself from Walden on social issues, civil rights and health care. She served as a board member of Cover Oregon, the state’s troubled health insurance marketplace established under the Affordable Care Act. And she defends its achievements, something she’s taken a lot of flack about on the campaign trail.

While some would like to see Christofferson push further to the left, her centrist strategy and business connections have allowed her to raise more money than Libertarian candidate Sharon Durbin - for that matter, more money than any Democratic challenger in recent history. But it’s still a paltry $110,000 to Walden’s $3.2 million as of the end of September.

Despite the money gap, Deschutes County Democratic Party Chair Laurie Gould says by making a strong showing now, Christofferson is forcing Walden to talk about issues affecting the 2nd District.

"To have a credible, positive candidate like Aelea sort of opens the door to get more attention from the Democratic Congressional Committee so that they see she’s viable, that she’s got a chance at the seat," Gould says. "We’re hoping she’s viewing this as a long-term process and will challenge Walden again."

In a district where there are more independent and third party voters than there are registered Democrats, Gould says it would be a symbolic victory for Christofferson to pull 40 percent of the vote. But even that would mean convincing scores of independents to give up on the candidate they’ve largely supported for the past eight terms.

<p>Oregon's 2nd Congressional District covers a large geographic swathe of Oregon.</p>

Oregon's 2nd Congressional District covers a large geographic swathe of Oregon.

Copyright 2014 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Jes Burns is a reporter for OPB's Science & Environment unit. Jes has a degree in English literature from Duke University and a master's degree from the University of Oregon's School of Journalism and Communications.