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US Sen. Jeff Merkley Faces A Challenge From QAnon Believer Jo Rae Perkins

Merkley and Perkins disagree on just about everything.

Democratic U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley and Republican challenger Jo Rae Perkins have little in common when it comes to issues such as the pandemic and the economy. And their political prospects are sharply different.

Merkley appears headed to an easy re-election as he cements his position as one of the most liberal members of the Senate. Perkins is a staunch supporter of President Donald Trump who talks about seriously downsizing the federal government. Most of the attention she has received in this race comes from her interest in QAnon, the loose-knit online community that has promoted various conspiracy theories.

In almost every way, the two illustrate our stark political divides. Merkley sometimes seems like a younger version of Bernie Sanders; Perkins' rhetoric often makes Donald Trump sound like a wishy-washy moderate.

Here’s Merkley, laying out his basic premise for what he wants to get done.

“The constituents in Oregon really want to see us reinvest in health care and housing and education – the fundamentals for families to thrive,” he said in an interview in the backyard of his outer southeast Portland home. “They realize that ordinary families have been getting the short end of the stick.”

Perkins doesn’t see it that way.

“We have too many federal agencies [performing functions] that are best served at the local level,” Perkins said before a campaign stop in Happy Valley.

She specifically targets the Environmental Protection Agency and the huge federal land holdings in the West.

“I question the constitutionality of those,” she said. “Where in the Constitution does it say that those different agencies can be supported by the federal government?”

And so it goes. Merkley is a leading figure in the Senate in attacking climate change. He wants to shut down fossil fuel exploration while shifting to renewable energy. Perkins says man-made emissions aren’t changing the climate and says the United States is doing enough to clean up air pollution from oil and coal.

Perkins also says the news media and critics of the president have exaggerated the dangers posed by COVID-19. Among other things, she charges that the U.S. death toll from the virus, which passed 200,000 people on Sept. 22, has been inflated. In contrast, Merkley says Congress should approve additional multi-trillion-dollar aid packages to help fight the pandemic – and he accuses Trump of botching the federal response.

That just scratches the surface of their divergent views. Here’s a guide to the candidate and their backgrounds.

What they bring to the race

Despite their differences, Merkley and Perkins at least have one thing in common: they each planned to do something else besides run for the Senate in 2020.

Merkley, 63, explored running for president last year, hoping he could excite the progressive community while not scaring away establishment Democrats, as he has done in Oregon. But he concluded he didn’t have a viable path in the crowded primary, and he jumped out of the presidential sweepstakes in early 2019.

Perkins, a 64-year-old Albany resident, initially filed to run her third consecutive candidacy for the congressional seat held by Democratic U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio.

But Republican officials were more excited about another candidate, Alek Skarlatos. He’s the young veteran who received intentional attention for foiling a terrorist attack on a Paris-bound train. They persuaded Perkins to step aside, so she moved into the Senate race, where she defeated three other little-known candidates in a Republican primary that more well-known GOP figures passed up.

Merkley said his chance to ever run for president is likely past. Instead, he said he is now focused on working to fix what he calls a broken Senate. In particular, he is continuing his repeated attempts to restrict the widespread use of the filibuster. That prevents the Senate from dealing with many issues unless a super-majority of 60 senators can be assembled.

“It’s been used to protect the wealth and advantages of the most powerful people in the United States and to block bills for the people,” said Merkley, noting that the Senate could use the existing rules to cut taxes — largely for the wealthy — using a simple majority but can’t proceed on health care, housing or education.

According toGovtrack, which analyzes congressional records, only three senators had a more liberal record in 2019 than Merkley, based on the legislation he introduced and co-sponsored.

At the same time, he also has the political advantages of serving on the Senate Appropriations Committee. As ranking member on an agriculture and rural affairs subcommittee, he’s helped funnel money to Republican-leaning areas outside the state’s big cities. That ranges from aid for new water infrastructure in central Oregon to funds for new wood products.

Merkley nurtures his blue-collar roots, continuing to live in the modest Mill Park neighborhood east of Interstate 205 where he grew up. He’s a former Oregon House speaker who won a surprise victory over Republican incumbent Gordon Smith in 2008.

Meanwhile, Perkins has held a series of jobs, including in real estate and banking, while she raised two children. She was also active in community affairs and grassroots politics. Her husband is a carpet installer, and she said they’ve struggled at times. Records showed they twice declared bankruptcy, in 1997 and 2009.

She enrolled at Oregon State University in her 50s and in 2012 earned a bachelor’s degree in political science, which she said would be a good credential for running for office. Two years later she ran for the U.S. Senate, but finished third in the Republican primary.

This year, Perkins has repeatedly courted support from QAnon followers by praising their teamwork and citing the catchphrase, “Where we go one, we go all.” That may have helped her in the primary since QAnon has attracted a growing number of Trump supporters,.

QAnon started in 2017 with a message on an internet forum from a supposedly well-placed source in the intelligence community — that would be Q — saying that Hillary Clinton was about to be arrested for sex trafficking. None of this proved true but the idea that a Satan-worshiping cabal was secretly dominating government and business took off.

Now, Perkins is one of more than two-dozen congressional candidates who have expressed support for QAnon, according to Media Matters, a liberal research group that tracks the movement. Critics say QAnon is a dangerous and baseless conspiracy theory that has incited some people to violence.

Merkley has his own critique of the movement.

“Pushing conspiracy theories that are designed to increase hate and division in America is very different than working together to solve problems,” he said. “We need much less of the former – the conspiracy theories – and a lot more of the latter.”

Perkins said she’s convinced QAnon is not a hoax and is “not a conspiracy theory. The Q team is a group of people that has put together information, much of it by topic [that] saves me hours of research … Do I agree with everything Q has posted? No.”

Managing or questioning the pandemic

When Perkins agreed to meet for an interview recently, she noted that “I don’t do social distancing.” But she agreed to sit in a chair six feet away while she explained why she’s not worried about the coronavirus.

“I believe there’s 80,000 deaths in the United States attributed to the flu,” she said, referring to the big upward spike of flu deaths in the 2017-18 flu season (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention later revised its estimate downward to 61,000 deaths).

“Did anybody say anything about it?" Perkins said. "Nobody said boo…And all of a sudden, we’re in an election year, [and people said] ‘Orange man bad. Shut down the economy. The economy is doing too good … We’ve got to do anything we can. We couldn’t stop him with Russia-gate, we couldn’t stop him with the impeachment.’”

The more than 200,000 COVID deaths far exceed the flu, even in that unusually bad year mentioned by Perkins. But she said she thinks the COVID death numbers have been “cooked,” largely by attributing deaths from other causes to the virus. Data from the Centers for Disease Control do show that the virus is most likely to kill elderly people with underlying health issues. But the CDC also points out that overall deaths are running high enough above normal that the actual death toll from the virus could be even greater than what’s been reported.

Merkley subscribes to this view, saying that, “if anything the numbers [of deaths] are understated.” He charged that Trump downplayed the severity of the virus and turned what should be a time of national unity into a culture war over wearing masks.

“The president lied, and tens of thousands more Americans have died as a result,” he said. “So we need to have just solid science-based advice and modeling of behavior that will help us defeat this disease.”

Like other Democrats, Merkley has been pushing for expansive aid packages that include such things as continuation of the $600-a-week federal unemployment benefits that expired at the end of July and aid to cash-strapped state governments, schools and other local public functions.

Perkins said she might support some continuation of federal aid, but she said the main objective is to end the virus-induced shutdowns.

“I think the states just need to let the people go back to work,” she said.

On the economy
Merkley wants to repeal the 2017 tax cuts signed by Trump that he says mostly helped the wealthiest Americans while closing tax loopholes that allow many large and profitable businesses to avoid paying any income taxes. He would keep Social Security solvent by lifting the cap on wages subjecting to payroll taxes for that system, as well as Medicare.

When it comes to Medicare, Merkley said he wants to eventually extend it to cover all Americans, so they get a “simple seamless system where you have health care just by the virtue of living” in the U.S.

The current system, he said, “is so expensive, so complicated and so stressful, and so we can do far better.”

Perkins said the wealthy already pay a disproportionately high share of the taxes and should not have them increased. The conservative-leaning Tax Foundation finds that the top 10% of earners pay 70% of individual income taxes.

“We as a society need to encourage people to go after their dreams and stop standing in their way,” said Perkins, explaining that she’s not concerned about rising wage inequality.

“There’s too many people who say, ‘Oh woe is me, because this was the hand that I was dealt and I must play this hand,’” she said. “And I’m one of the people who says, ‘If you don’t like what you were dealt, then go do something different.’”

Perkins said she wants to reduce the government role in health care, not increase it. And she said that the way to keep Social Security solvent is to gradually shift the system so that younger people contribute to an individual retirement account.

On climate change

Merkley proudly talks about how his legislation to basically eliminate carbon emissions by 2050 is now a highlight of former Vice President Joe Biden’s plan to combat climate change.

That plan, he said, will lead to a “very rapid transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy” while creating “millions of good-paying jobs” as the new energy economy ramps up.

That includes a “keep it in the ground” strategy of ending fossil-fuel leases on public lands, another bulwark of Merkley’s legislative approach.

He said there’s no doubt in his mind that the signs of climate change are already hitting the world, including in Oregon.

“We’re seeing an incredible impact,” he said, with longer wildfire seasons caused by such factors as hotter weather and shrinking snowpacks.

He said he hopes to be able to obtain greater federal aid to recover from the wildfires by partnering not only with other western states such as California and Washington, but with states to the east affected by more intense and frequent tornadoes and hurricanes.

The senator is also pushing for a huge increase in federal aid to pay for work thinning overgrown forests while keeping current environmental restrictions on logging in place.

That is a “much better way to go in terms of the ecosystem,” he said, “because you have forests that more resemble natural forests; better in terms of fire resilience and better in terms of providing a steady supply of sawlogs.”

Perkins said the problems with Oregon forests don’t have anything to do with a changing climate. The problem, she said, is mismanagement that’s led to massive wildfires causing some of the world’s worst air pollution.

“We have cowered down to environmentalists who are freaking out about cutting timber,” she said, arguing that the size of wildfires grew as the region reduced the harvest levels on federal lands to protect the northern spotted owl.

“I would open up the forest proper logging and proper forestry management,” Perkins added, “and get the federal government out of the way.”

Perkins said federal lands should be turned over to the states or sold off to private interests.

She’d also oppose any attempt at a massive government program to combat climate change. She said the climate is always changing, but she said she doesn’t think it’s caused by carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels. “It doesn’t mean that you burn it so that you’re making the air smoggy again,” she added. “We’ve already got the tools to cleanly burn this stuff.”

Racial justice and protests

Perkins has raised very little money for her campaign – just $37,000 as of June 30, while Merkley had $3.6 million in the bank. She spent some of those scant funds on a web ad that showed scenes of violence and arson at the Portland protests that she describes as “Jeff Merkley’s vision" for Oregon.

In an interview, she charged that Merkley “does not know the difference between a peaceful protest or a riot” and that he needs to support police efforts to end what she sees as widespread unlawful behavior. She frequently refers to the protests in her twitter feed as she attacks antifa and other favorite targets of conservatives. She clearly sees it as a political opening for her.

Merkley said he has condemned violence “coming both from the very far left and the very far right,” saying it does not advance the Black Lives Matter movement. He focuses much of his criticism on Trump for bringing federal forces into Portland. He charged they operated as a “secret” police who strayed far from their ostensible mission of protecting federal property.

“He’s adopted practices you’d expect to see in Turkey under Erdogan or in the Philippines under Duterte or under Putin in Russia,” said Merkley, referring to federal officers who didn’t wear identifiers on their uniforms “so that they can’t be held accountable when they walk up and beat the hell of out of a peaceful protester.”

Merkley introduced legislation aimed at curbing those federal police practices. He also signed onto a bill from two prominent Black senators, Democrats Kamala Harris of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey, to set national standards for police agencies. They include such things as establishing a national database of police misconduct, require the police use of body cameras and a ban on racial profiling.

Perkins said people have “rushed to judgment” after seeing video of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and that cases of police brutality have been overstated.

“There have been more white people killed by police officers than Black people. And that’s a known fact and you can’t skew the numbers,” she said.

She dismissed the fact that, on a per capita basis, more Black people have been killed by police.

“Then OK, well, if there’s more Black people that are causing crimes and more Black people are going to face challenges, stop committing crime,” she said. “That’s the answer.”

Merkley said he sees it quite differently.

“We have to recognize that at the heart of the challenge is a systemic racism with police departments that look at the white community as their clients and the community of color as the threat,” he said. “So if they see three teen-age boys who are white, they think they’re goofing around. They see three that are black, they think they’ve committed a criminal act.”

Copyright 2020 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Jeff Mapes is a senior political reporter at Oregon Public Broadcasting. Previously, Jeff covered state and national politics for The Oregonian for nearly 32 years. He has covered numerous presidential, congressional, gubernatorial and ballot measure campaigns, as well as many sessions of the Legislature, stretching back to 1985. Jeff graduated from San Jose State University with a B.A. in journalism.