WASHINGTON – Republican Colm Willis is making the Afforable Care Act and the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal issues in his quest to unseat incumbent Congressman Kurt Schrader. Pacific Green Party candidate Marvin J. Sandnes advocates a single-payer health care system and an immediate U.S. exit from Afghanistan.
Schrader, a Democrat, dismisses most of those positions. He said Willis has admitted not even reading the trade agreement and that a single-payer proposal “just didn’t have any legs at all” when considered in early negotiations. But he concedes the Affordable Care Act could be improved.
The 5th Congressional District contains the state’s agricultural heartland but also some fast-growing suburbs, like those in Portland and Salem. It’s “what everyone in their pioneer wagons came over here for in the 1840s and ‘50s,” according to Pacific University political science professor James D. Moore.
It also has the most evenly split voter registration of the state’s five districts, with a slight Democratic advantage. The Cook Political Report rates the district's “partisan voting index” – a measure of how it leans by party preference based on the previous two presidential elections – as “even.” But Cook also rates the district “solid Democratic” in the Nov. 8 House election.
That’s partly because, in a year of angry voters, Schrader has a reputation for working with Republicans, has avoided scandal and isn’t hyper-partisan, Moore said. And he’s known for his support of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration facility at Newport, which Moore says amounts to “bringing home the bacon.”
“He actually fits our most closely divided district,” said Moore. “In a non-presidential year, he’ll win by 30,000 votes. In a presidential year, he’ll win by 40,000 because there are more Democrats coming out. It’s never a landslide.”
Schrader won the district in 2014 with 53.7 percent of the vote, defeating Republican Clackamas County Commissioner Tootie Smith, who took 39.2 percent. In 2012, Schrader won 54 percent of the vote over Republican Fred Thompson’s 42.4 percent.
Schrader has a huge cash advantage over Willis, having raised $1.4 million this cycle with $1.5 million remaining at the end of June. That’s almost 10 times his Republican opponent’s $168,916, which includes a $9,000 loan.
Federal Election Commission records show Right to Life Oregon, Willis' former employer, gave the Stayton lawyer $10,000 of the $13,250 he has raised from political action committees.
By contrast, Schrader, who was named to the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee at the beginning of the current two-year Congress, raised $957,328 from PACs, compared to $384,166 from individuals.
Sandnes, 71, does not have a committee registered with the FEC but he said he spent $2,500 mailing out fliers explaining his positions.
Oregon State University political science professor William Lunch said the large fundraising edge Schrader has is explained by the fact that “large contributors, who are usually fairly sophisticated, recognize he’s very likely to be reelected. Republicans in that district have once again selected someone who is too far to the right of center for the center of gravity of the voters in the district.”
Willis, 30, is concentrating on three main issues. He said the Affordable Care Act — also known as Obamacare — has led to “skyrocketing premiums” and has caused people to lose health insurance. The Trans-Pacific Partnership will “destroy jobs” and doesn’t address currency manipulation, he said. And he opposes the Iranian nuclear deal, saying it has allowed a state sponsor of terrorism to regain frozen assets. He supports re-imposing sanctions on Tehran.
Willis faults Schrader for voting with his party leadership on most major issues and for leaving the Agriculture Committee as a possible 2017 farm bill approaches.
“For the first few years, he used to talk about how important it was that he was working on the Agriculture Committee because agriculture’s a big part of the district here, and he was right,” Willis said. He said Oregon needs a seat at the table when major players from Florida, California and Iowa set policy, and that he would ask for a seat on the committee if elected.
Schrader, a veterinarian who turns 65 next week, said his switch to Energy and Commerce came after the Agriculture Committee completed work on the last farm bill, and Energy and Commerce is a better perch for his constituents.
“There’s a lot of territory that concerns agriculture under the purview of Energy and Commerce,” he said, including the Environmental Protection Agency and environmental issues. Schrader also noted that he's won endorsements from “all the agriculture groups.” including Ag-PAC, a political action committee that says it’s dedicated to electing “natural resource-friendly” legislators.
Schrader said that, besides not reading the trade agreement, Willis is wrong about key features, including provisions for minimum wages, collective bargaining and currency manipulation. He supports the TPP because he wants the U.S. to set rules with high standards rather than China, with none.
Schrader is dismissive of his Republican challenger, asking “why someone who just got out of law school feels he’s qualified for this job.” Willis, who calls himself “a small-business lawyer,” was a staffer for 11 months on the U.S. Senate's Joint Economic Committee through the spring of 2009 before serving as political director of Oregon Right to Life until late last year.
Schrader also criticized of Willis’ decision to vote for Donald Trump, a candidate the incumbent calls “morally bankrupt.”
“Like it or not, there’s only one qualified (presidential) candidate,” Schrader said.
If elected to a fifth term, Schrader said, he hopes to see a forestry bill that stimulates rural economies to “cross the finish line,” and expects productive collaborations with Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden, Republican Rep. Greg Walden and Democratic Rep. Peter DeFazio. He wants to see comprehensive immigration reform, better refinancing terms for student loans and improvements in technical education. He also plans to reintroduce “my signature constitutional amendment” — to overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizen United decision that led to the creation of super PACs.
Sandnes, a businessman in Salem for 50 years, began managing commercial property after directing a youth center following college. His progressive platform includes ending the war in Afghanistan and redirecting Pentagon resources to fix the leak of radioactive water from the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan that was damaged by the 2011 tsunami.
An avid sailor, he believes the plume of radioactive water already has affected seagull populations along the Oregon coast.
“We’re killing the plankton,” he said. “This is a catastrophe.”
Sandnes is an impressive presence on the Internet, where he has spelled out a platform that calls for a single-payer health care program — “premised on the idea that good health is a right” — and for closing the six U.S. military bases in Afghanistan. He suggests a correlation between this country's 16-year occupation of Afghanistan, the largest supplier of opium, and Oregon's epidemic of heroin addiction. (Schrader said he’s for getting out of Afghanistan “in an expeditious manner” and would apply that funding to education.)
Prior to his run for Congress, Sandnes, who sometimes spells his name “Sannes” in online videos, was known for arguing that the 7 World Trade Center building near the twin towers was brought down by a secret, controlled demolition on Sept. 11, 2001, and that the events of that day led to mass surveillance and suspension of some civil liberties.
“The Bill of Rights has been obliterated,” he said.
Bartholomew Sullivan is The Statesman Journal’s Washington correspondent.