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DeFazio faces tough challenge in changing Oregon district

Veteran who helped thwart terrorist attack has raised $4.5 million

President Donald Trump lost Oregon’s 4th District in 2016 by less than a percentage point, but for 34 years, Democratic Rep. Peter A. DeFazio has won election after election handily.

This year could be different for the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman, however, in his district that covers the southern half of Oregon’s Pacific coastline. DeFazio, 73, a pugnacious lawmaker who lives on a houseboat when he’s in Washington and has an affinity for profane socks, faces his toughest challenge in decades from a 28-year-old Roseburg native best known for helping to thwart a terrorist attack on a train from Amsterdam to Paris in 2015.

Alek Skarlatos, a political newcomer and Afghanistan veteran, performed on “Dancing with the Stars” after playing himself in a Clint Eastwood-directed movie about the train attack. He lost his only other political race for a spot on the Douglas County Commission in 2018 but has raised nearly $4.5 million for his congressional race, including $2.6 million last quarter.

Republicans hope he’s a unicorn in what feels likely to be a dismal year for their party: He’s outraised a longtime incumbent, has star power and is running in a swing district during what is an extraordinarily turbulent time for Oregon marked by wildfires and political upheaval. 

Skarlatos is using that in his campaign ads, in which he intones about “violent mobs” attacking those in uniform and “socialists and communists … burning our city.”

“America is in danger,” he said. 

DeFazio agrees on the theme but differs on the whys. He has consistently argued that Trump presents a threat to democracy, and blames the wildfires on climate change.

DeFazio has raised $3.8 million for his campaign, including $1.4 million last quarter. But his decades of running have given him a financial cushion: He had $1.9 million in the bank at Oct. 14 compared to Skarlatos’ $417,000.

Study in contrasts

On the trail, Skarlatos presents himself as a 2nd Amendment candidate who supports revised forest management policies that allow more logging and tree removal on public lands and national forests and a repeal of the 2010 health care law. DeFazio has advocated additional COVID-19 relief and protecting the 2010 law, and he’s portrayed Skarlatos as an upstart whose views on health care are indecipherable at best.

Skarlatos, center, poses with, from left, Jeanne Goursaud, Jenna Fischer, Spencer Stone, Clint Eastwood and Anthony Sadler at the U.S. premiere of “The 15:17 to Paris” in 2018. (Albert L. Ortega/Getty Images file photo)

Skarlatos’ ads have featured him walking through a timber yard, tossing framed pictures of DeFazio and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to the side, while pointing out that the incumbent has been in office longer than he’s been alive. In another, released near the anniversary of the Paris train attack, Skarlatos sits in a dark train, talking about “those in America who want to see this country fail,” and proclaims, “It’s time for a fighter.”

In one of DeFazio’s ads, by contrast, he chains himself to a mailbox, an allusion to threats to the U.S. Postal Service and mail-in voting. “They’re not getting this one,” he tells the camera. 

DeFazio’s long history in the district — he was elected six years before Skarlatos was born — gives him an edge, and Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race Likely Democratic.

In Washington, DeFazio made a name for himself on transportation issues even before he assumed the Democrats’ top spot on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in 2015 and became chairman in 2019. He’s been on the panel since his first election to Congress in 1986 and has served as chairman or ranking member on four of the six subcommittees. 

This year alone, his committee released a comprehensive report on the troubled Boeing 737 Max jetliner and he pushed a $1.5 trillion infrastructure bill through the House, albeit one that the Senate has refused to consider.

His district includes vast rural terrain but also two college towns, Corvallis and Eugene, which have given him a reliable chunk of liberal voters.

While both Oregon State University and the University of Oregon are running classes remotely because of the pandemic, the state runs all its elections by mail, so a shortage of students will probably have less of an impact in DeFazio’s district than it would elsewhere, said Christopher McKnight Nichols, director of the Center for Humanities at Oregon State, whose work focuses in part on politics and political history.

A real race

DeFazio has won reelection by double digits over the last decade in part because he faced the same opponent, Art Robinson, who denies climate change and who has become well known for his research, which involves collecting human urine samples that he stores in his rural Oregon lab. 

But this year is different. 

Democratic groups have taken the race seriously, spending $1.4 million on DeFazio’s behalf via the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, House Majority PAC and the Principles Project, among others. NRDC Action Votes, an independent PAC promoting the goals of the Natural Resources Defense Council, announced recently it’s launching a $200,000 television and digital ad buy backing the Oregon Democrat.

By contrast, Republican groups, including Congressional Leadership Fund and the National Rifle Association’s Political Victory Fund are among the groups that have spent nearly $365,000 on Skarlatos’ behalf.

“I would say this is the type of race an incumbent loses if they’ve been napping,” McKnight Nichols said. “And he has not been napping.”

Still, Skarlatos “has a legitimate chance,” McKnight Nichols said. “Republicans think this is one of their few chances to pick up a seat, and beating such a longtime Democrat would be a coup in a year that’s likely to be bad, if not terrible.”

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Rebecca Tweed, a Republican political consultant based in Oregon who is not affiliated with the race, said Skarlatos has given DeFazio the most serious challenge he’s faced in decades.

Skarlatos, “a real Oregonian who has grown up in the area and who has seen the impact of not having strong congressional leadership,” presents an opportunity for something different, she said. 

“I’d put this in one of the top five races in the country to watch in terms of congressional races to flip,” she said. “It’s a left-leaning area, but it’s a lot of hard-working Oregonians who feel like they haven’t been represented, and Alek is providing a solution that they haven’t seen for a long time.”

John Horvick, director of client relations and political research at DHM Research in Portland, Oregon, said the 4th District’s Democratic advantage has shrunk since 2008, from 10 points to 5.

But DeFazio, he said, outperformed Hillary Clinton by 15 points in 2016, “so that should tell us something about his popularity.”

“I suspect DeFazio will win,” Horvick said, acknowledging that “it’s definitely a swing district. It’s more competitive than it’s been.”

Priscilla Southwell, a professor emerita of political science at the University of Oregon, said that while Skarlatos’ inexperience in politics might speak to more alienated voters in the district’s rural areas, running this year — amid a pandemic and wildfires — might not be ideal. Skarlatos has dismissed the notion of additional coronavirus stimulus, while DeFazio has been adamant about the need for it, including support for airline workers who have been furloughed because of the pandemic.

“It doesn’t feel like a moment where the state can handle everything,” she said. “This doesn’t seem like a good moment to throw off someone with a chairmanship and lead position in a party.”

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