For nearly 20 years Republican Rep. Greg Walden has locked up re-election in Oregon’s 2nd Congressional District. This time, however, Democrat Jamie McLeod-Skinner is betting on voters with an independent streak.
Those voters include Anthony Bowman of Pendleton.
“I don’t necessarily vote on the right side or the left side. I just read about all the candidates, all the issues and choose,” he said.
Bowman was busy serving ham and pancakes with about 40 other veterans during a fundraiser for the VFW, and he was a good sport about talking politics at breakfast. Bowman supported Walden and Donald Trump in 2016. But he said he’s always registered to vote as a Democrat.
That surprised his old friend Sean Degan, who was taking breakfast tickets.
“You just get out of here,” he laughed, ribbing Bowman. “I can’t believe you’re a registered Democrat.”
Degan said he’s a registered Republican who supports term limits, even if it means losing an incumbent’s influence.
“Change doesn’t happen from the same people being there fighting the same battles. It takes new voices and a shake-up,” he said.
But Degan also plans to vote for Walden again.
“I like him, I think he’s doing a good job,” Degan said.
A few picnic tables over, fellow veteran Chris Eggo was of a different mind.
“Anything would be better than Walden as far as I’m concerned. I’m just a working dude," he said. "He has nothing for me.”
Eggo said he believes Walden is out of touch with people like him.
“The younger folks are working minimum wage, two or three part-time jobs … but, he’s got welfare checks for the big wheat ranchers,” he said.
That’s a reference to $12 billion in farm subsidies championed by GOP lawmakers to ease the pain of the Trump administration's trade policies. Walden has stuck closely to the party line under President Trump, and his loyalty has come with a big reward.
Walden leads the House Energy and Commerce Committee, one of the most influential bodies in Congress. It has mind-boggling reach, from your internet speed to your health care.
And Walden’s recent record on health care is the first line of attack for McLeod-Skinner.
“He championed a bill that did not protect people with pre-existing conditions. Had he been successful last year, 1 in 5 people in my district would have been at risk of losing their health care,” she said.
That’s a reference to the failed American Health Care Act, the Republican-backed plan for health care reform Walden pushed through the House to replace the Affordable Care Act. But then, even the president walked back support when millions of people stood to lose coverage.
McLeod-Skinner has been campaigning and traveling around Oregon's huge 2nd District for well more than a year. She sat atop a city park’s wooden grandstand during the Pendleton Roundup, an American-Indian beauty pageant happening on one side of her and a rodeo on the other.
“I'm not afraid of telling folks in Eastern Oregon that I'm gay. What makes me nervous is telling people in Ashland I listen to country music,” she laughed.
McLeod-Skinner served eight years on the Santa Clara City Council in California’s Bay Area before a short stint as the city manager of Phoenix in Southern Oregon. She has a law degree and a background in water resource planning, which she sees as a strength.
“Water is fundamental to all communities," she said. "My follow up question I love to ask is, ‘OK, you tell me, is groundwater Republican or Democrat?’”
McLeod-Skinner said she’s bipartisan. Walden has said she’s an outsider, while his roots are in the district.
“I grew up there, I grew up on a cherry orchard in The Dalles," he said. "I understand agriculture. I’ve fought for farmers and ranchers."
Walden's been in Congress since 1998. Today, he represents about 1 in 6 Oregonians, and he’s quick to remind people who question his ties to the president that 19 out of 20 of the district’s counties elected Trump.
“And they still have a positive view of the president, as of polling I did in July,” he added.
Walden said there’s good news out of the administration, citing a historically low unemployment rate. Earlier this month, a bill of Walden's aimed at curbing the opioid crisis passed with bipartisan support.
“And I think there's more work to be done on changing our federal forest policy,” he said.
McLeod-Skinner’s campaign has raised more money than all the Democratic candidates to run against him in the past, combined. But that’s still a fraction of what’s in Walden's war chest.
“I usually don't spend what I raise,” Walden said. “And hopefully, I won't have to this time. But let's face it. Radio airtime costs money, television time costs money, direct mail costs money, social media costs money. And you have to be prepared. It's like any other business.”
Details of who is backing Walden and who is behind McLeod-Skinner will become more clear after Oct. 15, the next deadline for campaign finance reporting.
Meanwhile, neighbors and businesses from Oregon’s northern border to its southern reaches are planting campaign signs to declare their choice for the 2nd District.