There is an imaginary but bright line drawn in the deep woods around the university towns of Eugene and Corvallis, separating them from the vast clear-cuts and second-growth timber of Oregon’s Fourth Congressional District. It keeps shifting, but you know it’s there and that it’s not the traditional town-and-gown — more likely mortarboard and hardhat.
Since the Fourth was delineated in 1943, that’s been the divided politics of the Fourth. For the past three decades a slight, balding, populist Democrat named Peter DeFazio has maintained an uneasy perch straddling that line in the forest duff. Republicans have maintained a solid base of about 40 percent, but to no avail for decades.
That may be changing in 2020, with an unlikely challenge from a man not even born when DeFazio won his first race in 1986. National pundits—and donors—have turned their eyes on Oregon 4. Republicans have found a youthful celebrity, Alek Skariatos, to challenge the 73-year-old chairman of the House Transportation Committee. Even in a district with so many contrasts, this contest is striking to say the least.
But a loss increasingly looks possible, if from a most unlikely source, a 28-year-old celebrity with a biography short on experience but long on drama. In his Oregon Voters Pamphlet introduction, Alek Skariatos describes himself as a “real estate investor and public speaker, Army National Guard sniper, author and actor. It is surely the first time in Oregon history that a candidate listed “sniper” as experience for entering Congress, but it’s been a contentious political year all-around. In the Fourth District, where weapons are common in its small towns and timbered hills, it could work.
Skariatos isn’t your garden-variety sniper; he is a genuine hero. In 2015, he and two friends overpowered a gunman on a train to Paris, and without doubt saved many lives. Both President Barack Obama and the French government honored his feat. He went on to write a book about it, and play himself in a Clint Eastwood movie.
A resident of Roseburg, in timber-dominant Douglas County, Skariatos got interested in politics when he left the service, and after a near-miss run for the county commission, was recruited to take on DeFazio. He’s had his share of Fox News and Dancing with the Stars appearances, building celebrity status. He supports President Trump and his law-and-order views, but tepidly. “I do agree with a lot of the policies Donald Trump has put in place because I believe they are good for the country,” he told KEZI-TV in Eugene. “I don’t agree with them because I am necessarily a huge fan of Donald Trump and the things he says, but I do think he’s moved this country in the right direction overall.” In an interview with the Fox host Lou Dobbs, Skariatos described himself as “pro-God and pro-guns.” Otherwise his platform is rather vague.
Something is attracting big money in a district where spending has usually been in the million-dollar range. By September 30, Open Secrets reports, DeFazio had raised $3.2 million and Skariatos $3.9 million. Both have money on hand, but expect a lot more in the final weeks.
Can the sniper take down the wily veteran in 2020’s wild political theater? Well, some of the experts—and certainly Republican donors—think it could happen. Both the Cook Political Report and Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball have moved the once-safe Oregon 4 from a “likely Democrat” rating to “leans Democrat.” That change, after 16 DeFazio victories with little Republican opposition, awakened Democrats.
It certainly gained the attention of Congressman DeFazio.
His “Boston pol uncle” raised him to label the opposition as “bastud Republicans” and he brought to his four decades in politics a sharp tongue, legendary work ethic, and a strong dose of populist resistance to big business and political bullies. The formula has served DeFazio well in 33 years as Oregon’s Fourth District congressman. His career was preceded by five years as an aide to Rep. Jim Weaver and three as county commissioner in Lane County, hub of Democratic politics in Southwest Oregon.
To know Oregon’s Fourth is to know how tricky the path is for a man who was a founder of the Congressional Progressive Caucus in 1991 with Bernie Sanders, Ron Dellums, and Maxine Waters among others. DeFazio was chair of the caucus from 2003 to 2005. Washington’s Pramila Jayapal is the current co-chair.
DeFazio has challenged plenty of big guys and big issues as he worked his way to chair a key House committee. He has been a steady critic of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and, most recently, Boeing has felt the anger of the chair of the House Transportation Committee. Over the years DeFazio has emulated the passion if not always the tactics of his hero, Senator Wayne Morse, in a congressional district that is seemingly constantly poised to throw him out—but never quite gets it done.
There is worry among top Democrats because of DeFazio’s role as what Politico writers Sarah Ferris and Sam Mintz term “an infrastructure maven who is primed to play a major role on one of Joe Biden’s biggest priorities if he wins the White House next year. He’s also been a key player in Congress’s stimulus funding stalemate, a strong proponent for airline relief who has even bucked Democratic leadership at times.”
Oregon’s southwest corner has always been a political maelstrom. The Fourth’s boundaries date to 1943, and Republicans ruled 24 of the first 32 years. In 1974, Democrat Jim Weaver, a caustic and unpredictable populist allied with the Morse wing of the party, won the seat and held it until 1986, when he made an ill-fated effort to unseat Republican Sen. Bob Packwood. With Weaver came DeFazio, who arrived in Eugene in the ‘70s and took a graduate degree in gerontology at the University of Oregon. DeFazio joined Weaver’s staff, specializing at first in senior issues, then moving into natural resources and energy.
In 1983 DeFazio won a seat on the Lane County Commission, serving until 1986, when he won a hard-fought Democratic primary and went on to win the seat vacated by Weaver. The years on Weaver’s staff plus his county position solidified both his party credentials and his familiarity with district issues and its quirky politics.
Oregon State emeritus professor Bill Lunch, a longtime election watcher, points to DeFazio’s “long record of constituent and district service that has helped make him quite popular (and he is a distinctive populist, in the old left-leaning sense of the term).” Lunch sees DeFazio winning a competitive race, but also perhaps a long-term gain for Republicans: “The Rs are betting, I suspect, that they can run [Skariatos] in subsequent elections and will have established some name recognition for him.”
Oregon’s Fourth has urban-rural divisions in spades, with the states’ two most prominent universities only 45 miles apart on the northern side of a district otherwise dominated by timber, agriculture and in places a mix of Vietnam-era hippies and survivalists fleeing California. Drugs and guns give off-road travels a tint of adventure, especially in the days before marijuana was legalized in Oregon.
Yet Southwest Oregon over the past half-century has produced more than its share of the state’s top politicians, including Morse, governors Bob Straub and John Kitzhaber, iconic State Senate President Jason Boe and Congressman DeFazio. All won as Democrats, with a populist streak that helped them win blue-collar workers outside the major cities.
Put at its most basic, the university communities of Eugene (Oregon Ducks) and Corvallis (Oregon State Beavers) keep Democrats in power. The rest of the district votes Republican, even in areas where blue-collar workers voted Democrat at mid-century. The Fourth, despite its blue-collar history, is now defined as 55 percent white-collar workers, only 28 percent blue-collar and another 16 percent “gray-collar” (perhaps those with “ring around the collar” from the old commercials?).
Current voter registration shows Democrats with 33 percent and Republicans 29 percent; a whopping 32 percent are “unaffiliated” according to the Oregon Secretary of State. A full two-thirds of the Democrats are from Eugene and Corvallis areas. Lane County, dominated by Eugene, gave DeFazio a 3-to-1 margin in 2018, and Corvallis in Benton County gave him above 2-to-1.
But DeFazio’s last five election victories were over an unorthodox chemist who seems obsessed with urine as the key to a longer life and denies climate change. The chemist gave up his congressional efforts this year, opening the door to young Skariatos, who has become a Republican dream of flipping a Dem seat in a year when the party is bleeding congressional seats. GOP donors are playing the celebrity card with a candidate whose portfolio is based on a single praiseworthy act, but literally nothing else.
Some observers, including Cook’s David Wasserman, see Democrats hurting from pandemic impacts on the two big universities. A normal combined enrollment of about 46,000 students has been reduced to a degree yet to be revealed by the schools. But Oregon votes entirely by mail—and absent students can still vote by mail if registered in the Fourth. Of more importance is the permanent “university family” vote in the two cities—faculty and staff, family members and others closely associated with the campuses. This is the true “Base” of Fourth District Democrats. As with campuses nationwide, Trump’s attacks on science and disdain for education have produced a massive reaction in university communities.
Pacific University political scientist Jim Moore, who watches these races closely, sees it coming down to an old-school turnout battle. Race watchers will have their eyes on the Secretary of State’s release of daily ballot returns, as early as this week. “I will be watching to see if the Rs are voting at a lower rate than normal—possible evidence that the president’s attack on vote-by-mail is suppressing his own turnout,” Moore tells me.
One thing seems likely: this should be the last election in the Fourth as we know it. Census watchers list Oregon as one of seven states that should gain a congressional seat from the 2020 census. In Oregon, redistricting is a complex process involving in some cases the Legislature, the governor, and the Oregon Supreme Court. Reform efforts to develop something more akin to Washington’s nonpartisan system have thus far failed.
Oregon’s five districts vary from 820,305 in Northwest Oregon to the Fourth’s 781,166, based on 2015 census figures. Adding a sixth seat would mean districts at about 671,496, if the census remains at its 2015 level (which it won’t). We’re looking at a new Fourth with perhaps 100,000 less people.
That will challenge the shotgun marriage of Ducks and Beavers to hold the Fourth. Dealing with the partisan machinations of redistricting will be Job One for DeFazio or Skariatos. You could even imagine a scenario where after 2022 elections both men could be in Congress, from different districts!
My view, as someone who knows the district, is that DeFazio’s university base will hold, partly because there is real Democratic fervor to oust Trump. I don’t see a similar fervor on the GOP side. Hillary Clinton won the Fourth by a whisker, and since 1992 only one Republican—George W. Bush in 2000—has carried the Fourth.
After the 2020 census redistricting, southwest Oregon may well claim a Republican member of Congress—it could even be Skariatos—but this year it seems a bridge too far, even for an acclaimed hero.