Congress will never deliver on a progressive agenda as long as a coalition of right-wing Republicans and corporate Democrats thwart action on even the most popular proposals to reform and renew the United States.
This reality is well understood with regard to the US Senate, where minority leader Mitch McConnell’s obstructionist agenda has regularly gotten a boost from Democratic Senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. But it is also true with regard to the House, where the ability of Democrats to act has frequently been threatened not just by Republicans but also by a handful of so-called “centrist” Democrats who have sought to downsize the party’s priorities.
A number of the obstructionist Democrats are facing primary challenges this year from progressives who are unwilling to sacrifice progress on the altar of party unity. And, after a long count in central Oregon’s newly drawn Fifth Congressional District, progressives scored their first major primary victory. Challenger Jamie McLeod-Skinner took down Representative Kurt Schrader, a Blue Dog Democrat from Oregon whose initial reaction to the January 6, 2021, coup attempt was to defend the defeated former president.
When House Democratic such as Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) argued that Trump had to be held to account for urging the crowds that stormed the US Capitol to “fight like hell,” Schrader initially objected. In a call with members of the Democratic caucus shortly after the deadly riot, Schrader likened impeachment of Trump to a “lynching.”
Schrader’s comment drew an immediate outcry. “Our nation has an unforgivable history of murdering Black men and women,” protested Representative Suzanne Bonamici (D-Ore.). “Comparing a lynching to holding the President accountable is hurtful and insensitive and ignores the overt white supremacy on display during the insurrection.”
Schrader apologized and ultimately voted for impeachment. But his initial embrace of right-wing rhetoric reminded voters of the frequency with which the congressman has sounded—and acted—like a Republican. That was certainly the case in December 2020, when Shrader voted against providing stimulus checks to American families as they continued to suffer financial losses due to the coronavirus pandemic. Schrader suggested that sending $2,000 to struggling families was “criminal,” an argument rejected not just by his fellow Democrats but also by a number of Republicans.
When the 117th Congress got to work, Schrader was a regular obstructionist, joining a handful of fellow Democrats in stalling progress on President Biden’s initial “Build Back Better” proposal, and pressuring House leaders to decouple the plan from a popular infrastructure bill. His actions drew a rebuke from dozens of Democratic officials and activists in Oregon, who in the fall of 2021 sent the congressman a letter that declared: “Please don’t choose a handful of super rich billionaires and wealthy corporations over the millions of women, mothers, and caregivers who will not make it through this pandemic without paid leave, child care, an extended and permanent child tax credit, and major investments in home care work.”
Schrader’s appalling words and deeds also drew primary opposition from McLeod-Skinner, a lawyer and engineer with a track record of working on international development projects and serving as a city manager in several Oregon communities. Running in a redrawn district where both candidates had to introduce themselves to the voters, McLeod-Skinner began by distinguishing herself from the incumbent. She outlined the challenges facing the district and the nation and said, “Solutions to our challenges will not come from profiting from our pain. That’s why, in any election or office I’ve held, I’ve never taken money from Big Pharma or fossil fuel PACs.”
Schrader, a top recipient of campaign money from political action committees tied to the pharmaceutical industry, had been widely criticized by consumer advocates, unions, and local Democratic officials in Oregon for undermining efforts in the House to cut prescription drug prices. McLeod-Skinner’s campaign made the big issue a major focus on the primary fight. “What’s the difference between me and Kurt Schrader?” the challenger asked in the first of her sharp, often witty, campaign ads. “He takes millions in corporate PAC money. I won’t take a dime.”
“Schrader has sold out to Big Pharma. I’ve running for Congress to lower prescription drug prices,” she declared. “Big Pharma can’t buy my vote!”
Schrader’s record made him vulnerable. But what turned the tide against him was McLeod-Skinner’s well-organized and politically savvy “Committed to Communities” campaign, which drew early support from the Working Families Party, the Sierra Club, the LGBTQ Victory Fund, major unions such as the SEIU and the Oregon Nurses Association, as well as a number of county Democratic organizations in the district. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) weighed in with an endorsement that said, “Families deserve a Democrat who will lift up their voices in Congress, fight for prescription drug coverage for seniors, and tackle the climate crisis. Jamie is that Democrat.”
In the end, the primary wasn’t even close. After almost two weeks of counting in Oregon, Schrader conceded. McLeod-Skinner led by an overwhelming 56-43 margin, with all but a handful of votes counted, making her the first progressive House challenger to displace a corporate Democratic incumbent in this election cycle. And she may not be the last.
Texas election officials are still reviewing ballots in last week’s Texas runoff between Representative Henry Cuellar and attorney Jessica Cisneros, a progressive supported by Warren, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), and national groups such as Justice Democrats. Only 136 votes separate the challenger from the incumbent, who has been criticized for his opposition to abortion rights, labor rights, meaningful action to address the climate crisis, and humane approaches to immigration policy.
This is just the start of the primary season. Plenty of contests over the next three months will test the ability of progressives to hold Democratic incumbents to account, and to move the party toward a fuller embrace of economic, social, and racial justice and a climate action agenda. But the news from Oregon offers a signal that Democratic incumbents who take their cues from pharmaceutical interests and the fossil fuel industry are indeed vulnerable.
“We won because Oregonians are frustrated with the divisiveness and obstruction,” declared McLeod-Skinner after it was clear she had defeated Schrader. “We are frustrated with politicians who are beholden to their corporate donors, and not us.”