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Biden-backed Democrat defeated by progressive in Oregon primary

Schrader, a moderate who has crossed Democratic leadership repeatedly — but nonetheless still won Biden’s first endorsement of the cycle, had been bolstered in the final weeks of the race by a pair of outside groups that ended up spending nearly $2 million on the race. But it was not enough to blunt fierce backlash from local party leaders and grassroots groups who endorsed McLeod-Skinner.

Schrader conceded in a statement last week, congratulating McLeod-Skinner on “her tireless efforts and successful primary campaign.”

“I have striven to represent the entire district regardless of party affiliation, be a fiscally responsible voice of moderation, and worked across the aisle to bring our State and Country together. This is who I am and how I have served Oregon for over 25 years in elected office,” he added. “The majority of Democrats have chosen a different direction for now.”

Schrader’s voting record and efforts with a small group of House moderates to complicate the passage of Biden’s Build Back Better package last year, which ultimately died in the Senate, caused an uproar among local groups. And his initial vote against the President’s Covid-19 relief bill, the American Rescue Plan, as well as his opposition in committee to a provision allowing the government to negotiate drug prices, along with vocal skepticism over former President Donald Trump’s second impeachment — he likened the move to a “lynching” before apologizing and eventually voting for it — caused further heartburn among Democrats in the district.

With her victory, McLeod-Skinner now faces a competitive race in the newly drawn district, where more than 50% of voters had not previously seen Schrader’s name on the ballot.

The progressive, who outperformed expectations in a 2018 general election to since-retired GOP Rep. Greg Walden in the 2nd Congressional District, had built up good relations in the new district for her willingness to more aggressively engage with rural voters. During the campaign, she described Schrader as emblematic of Democrats’ failure to act on Capitol Hill.

“He helped to create the situation that Democrats are in now,” she told CNN before Election Day. “And it would be a totally different, totally different position that Democrats across the country would be in running in this upcoming cycle if we were saying, ‘You elected us to govern, we got some stuff done.'”

Leah Greenberg, co-executive director of the grassroots organization Indivisible, said Schrader’s close relationship with big business interests frustrated local groups — and that his defeat should resonate with other Democratic incumbents.

“This should be a real warning to other folks in the caucus who think that it’s possible to run on promises, like taking on the pharmaceutical industry, and not deliver,” Greenberg told CNN. “Voters are holding folks accountable for delivering on their agenda. And that’s really crucial for us to understand.”

McLeod-Skinner, like other progressives who ran in the May 17 primaries, was vastly outspent by outside groups determined to protect, in the case of the incumbent Schrader, or boost moderate candidates in open-seat primaries. The Working Families Party, a progressive group, spent more than $300,000 to back McLeod-Skinner, but she was outspent, in the final accounting, by an estimated 10-to-1 margin.

The disparity, and late influx of outside support for Schrader, she told CNN, highlighted a fundamental problem in Democratic Party politics.

“This may be a DC formula that is part of the reason why Democrats are hemorrhaging voters — there’s not an understanding of relationship building,” McLeod-Skinner said. “This sense you can just throw money into it and then voters will be led around by their nose, I think, is incredibly disrespectful of voters and a lack of understanding of relationships.”

Biden announced his endorsement of Schrader in late April, amid a long-running spat between county party chapters who backed McLeod-Skinner and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the party’s House campaign arm. The DCCC had sent aid to Oregon to help prop up Schrader, angering local groups. The party chairs in Deschutes, Clackamas and Marion counties eventually sent a letter to the DCCC asking that it “cease your active support of Kurt Schrader during the primary election.”

Before the polls closed in Oregon, a Biden adviser, speaking to CNN, explained the President’s decision to back Schrader, noting his status as an incumbent and early endorsement of the then-future President. Still, the adviser also sought to downplay the outcome of the primary.

“(McLeod-Skinner’s) biggest criticisms of Schrader have been that he has not been with the President enough,” the Biden adviser said. “For us, that’s a good thing.”

For her part, McLeod-Skinner had tried to remain conciliatory when discussing the Biden endorsement. Speaking to CNN a week before the election, she said she respected Biden, as did her supporters, but they had all been “really heavily, heavily disappointed that he was trying to put his thumb on the scale in the primary.”

“I don’t think he understood,” she added, “just how angry folks are on the ground and how much of a disconnect there is with Kurt right now.”

This story has been updated with Schrader’s concession statement.

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