Kurt Schrader — the representative from Oregon’s 5th Congressional District who emerged in 2021 as one of the biggest obstacles to President Joe Biden’s agenda in the House — is now running a reelection campaign that touts his support for the popular agenda he worked to undermine. Earlier this month, he released his first advertisements of the 2022 election cycle. In those ads, Schrader casts himself as a champion of Democratic priorities, claiming that he is “working to rebuild the safety net,” “making sure Medicare can negotiate lower drug prices,” and “leading the fight to get big money out of politics.”
Schrader is facing the strongest primary challenge of his seven terms in office. In a series of unprecedented votes, four of the six Democratic county parties in his district endorsed his primary opponent, Jamie McLeod-Skinner. The votes are unusual considering the procedural hurdles required for county parties to endorse: Party bylaws dictate that a two-thirds supermajority of votes cast by participating Democrats is required within a county. No other Oregon congressional incumbent in recent memory has faced renunciation from a single county party. The four counties that bucked Schrader — Clackamas, Deschutes, Linn, and Marion — contain over 90 percent of the 5th Congressional District’s voters.
In an interview with The Intercept explaining the unorthodox decision to endorse against an incumbent, Jan Lee, chair of the Clackamas County Democratic Party (Schrader’s home county), described Schrader’s new ads as misleading. In the lead-up to its endorsement of McLeod-Skinner, the group prepared a detailed position paper that broke down Schrader’s history of voting against the interests of Oregonians and the stated values of the party.
Schrader’s conservative record has drawn increased scrutiny from local and national Democrats since Biden’s election. In 2021, Schrader ultimately voted in favor of former President Donald Trump’s impeachment for inciting the January 6 Capitol insurrection after facing backlash for calling it a “lynching.” A couple months later, Schrader voted in favor of final passage of the American Rescue Plan after receiving a blistering letter from the Democratic Party chairs of each county in his district that lambasted his vote against initial passage. And last November, Schrader voted for Biden’s Build Back Better Act only after working to delink it from the bipartisan infrastructure bill and weaken key prescription drug reforms in committee.
In the words of the Clackamas County Democrats, Schrader’s record reflects a representative who serves “the rich and powerful,” not one who works “to protect the disenfranchised, the environment, or our democracy.” With recent internal polling first reported by Politico showing Schrader and McLeod-Skinner in a dead heat, Schrader’s ad blitz indicates that he is hoping to spin his record to address the growing discontent of his constituents.
“I’ve spent my time in Congress fighting for the people of Oregon — from passing critical bills that support families, schools and small businesses through the COVID-19 crisis, to championing legislation that lowers the cost of prescription drugs, fights against dark money in politics, and cleans up corruption in Washington,” Schrader wrote in a statement provided to The Intercept. “These are the issues Oregonians tell me they need addressed, and I have delivered real results.”
One of Schrader’s highest-profile conflicts with the party came in September, when Schrader was one of three House Democrats who voted to block a measure allowing Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices in favor of a much narrower reform that would allow Medicare to negotiate only a few drugs and therefore result in only a fraction of the cost savings. The move played a key role in weakening the Build Back Better Act. Though Schrader has long insisted that the federal deficit and Medicare spending need to be reined in, the larger reform would have saved the federal government hundreds of billions more each year and offset spending in other parts of the Build Back Better bill.
Schrader — who used a family fortune largely composed of pharmaceutical profits to fund his first congressional race — was heavily criticized following the vote, which he explained by pointing to dissent in the Senate. Schrader is also one of the top recipients of pharmaceutical money in Congress, taking over $100,000 from affiliated PACs in each of the last three election cycles. He has received almost $90,000 from these political action committees in the 2022 cycle so far.
Schrader’s ads this cycle have that criticism front of mind, touting the Oregon representative having supported Medicare drug pricing reform in the previous congressional session — when it was unlikely to pass the Republican-controlled Senate.
“Don’t get your hopes up that we’re going to spend trillions more of our kids’ and grandkids’ money that we don’t really have,” Schrader said.
Schrader also worked with eight other House Democrats to decouple the bipartisan infrastructure bill from the Build Back Better Act, which contained once-in-a-generation investments in items like housing, health care affordability, childhood poverty reduction, and college affordability. After the group’s initial victory, Schrader made the subtext of their actions into text when he told the dark-money corporate front group No Labels — which celebrated Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin’s eventual destruction of the Build Back Better Act — that after the two bills were successfully severed, his message to Democrats would be: “Don’t get your hopes up that we’re going to spend trillions more of our kids’ and grandkids’ money that we don’t really have.”
“At some point,” he told the group, “we’ve got to stop spending money. … Some of my colleagues have lost complete perspective.” When asked to explain his work to derail Biden’s agenda by decoupling the bills, he told local media that “every president comes in with an idea of how they’d like to have their agenda proceed. And the Congress is deferential. We take up many of their priorities. But I remind everybody, it is Congress that decides how the money is spent.”
Schrader’s statements about “working to rebuild the social safety net” are also difficult to reconcile with his record. Schrader has long supported extreme austerity measures like balanced budget amendments, again pointing to concerns about the deficit, and he has made consistent calls to limit the amount of funding the federal government provides to cornerstone programs like Medicare and Social Security.
Schrader voted against initial passage of the American Rescue Plan, the largest boost to the social safety net in recent memory, and reversed his position only after facing severe backlash from constituents and national media. In an act that is revealing of his true thoughts on Biden’s signature legislation, Schrader went on to co-sponsor a bill introduced a few months later by Rep. Ed Case, D-Hawaii, that would foreclose legislation like the American Rescue Plan from being implemented by future Congresses dealing with crises like the coronavirus pandemic.
In one recent ad, Schrader cites a 2011 amendment he introduced as evidence that he is “leading the fight to get big money out of politics.” Much more recently, however, Schrader received a massive spike in fundraising after further work with No Labels to hinder passage of the Build Back Better Act, as The Intercept previously reported. Schrader announced Monday that he will stop accepting donations from Koch Industries amid criticism that the corporate giant is continuing to do business in Russia amid its war of aggression in Ukraine, though he has yet to return any of the tens of thousands of dollars he has already received.
Clackamas County Democrats took specific issue with Schrader’s extensive receipt of campaign funds from business interests that oppose the reforms Schrader has worked to defeat. By contrast, McLeod-Skinner, whom the county party endorsed, has pledged not to accept any donations from corporate PACs to her campaign. That differing approach has left McLeod-Skinner with considerably fewer campaign resources leading up to the May 17 primary. Figures from the end of 2021 indicate that McLeod-Skinner had $200,000 on hand. After years of collecting disproportionately large amounts of corporate PAC money in uncompetitive election cycles, Schrader’s campaign chest has swelled to over $3 million dollars. McLeod-Skinner, meanwhile, has relied almost exclusively on individual contributions, substantially out-raising Schrader among small-dollar donors in the district.
According to Lee, the Clackamas County party chair, Schrader is fundamentally out of touch with his district. When asked whether Schrader makes efforts to maintain relationships and consult local Democrats on his votes, Lee told The Intercept that Schrader simply “stopped coming to the [5th Congressional District] quarterly meetings that included the various counties in our area,” instead opting to occasionally speak with county chairs and vice chairs one-on-one. When the county party sent its position paper to Schrader in hopes of getting clarity on his voting record, Lee said he “referred to other legislation he has voted for” but would not explain “any of the instances we pointed out as problematic.”
Lee says Schrader’s work to defeat Biden’s agenda and the substantial evidence that he may live outside the district were key reasons local Democrats have gone to unprecedented lengths to disavow him. “He came out here recently and turned right around after bringing his horses and just left,” she said.