Suzan Ellis Jones is happy for her friend, Greg Walden, who announced Monday he won’t seek a 12th term in Congress representing Oregon’s 2nd Congressional District.
But Jones is worried about the 2nd District, which covers all of Oregon east of the Cascades and Jackson County and part of Josephine County in the state’s southwest corner.
Jones, who is chair of the Baker County Republican Party and has worked on Walden’s campaigns since he was elected to Congress in 1998, believes Walden’s retirement could open the way for a Democratic candidate to win the House seat for the first time in almost 40 years.
The last Democrat to represent the 2nd District was Al Ullman of Baker City, who served 12 terms before losing his bid for a 13th term in 1980.
“If we get the wrong nominee out of the May primary we could lose the seat to the Dems,” Jones said on Tuesday. “I’m very concerned.”
Walden is the only Republican among Oregon’s congressional delegation.
Both the state’s U.S. senators, Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, and the representative for each of the four districts west of the Cascades, are Democrats.
Tom Van Diepen of Baker City, who is a precinct committee person for the Baker County Republican Party, said when he heard Monday that Walden would not seek re-election he initially felt the same trepidation that Jones has about whether the 2nd District will remain Oregon’s lone GOP stronghold.
But Tuesday afternoon Van Diepen said that, after further reflection, he’s not as worried about Republicans losing the seat.
“Anything can happen, but I don’t see a progressive or a liberal making much headway in Eastern Oregon,” Van Diepen said.
Although registered Republicans outnumber Democrats in the District by more than 46,000 — 189,983 Republicans as of September, compared with 143,353 registered Democrats — the GOP’s percentage has been decreasing over the past five years.
In September 2014, two months before Walden was elected to his ninth term, Republicans accounted for 40% of the 2nd District’s electorate, compared with Democrats’ 29.2%.
The percentage of registered Republicans dropped to 37.1% in September 2016, to 34% in September 2018, and to 33.2% this September.
Democrats have also lost ground during that period, going from 29.2% of the District’s voters in 2014 to 28.5% in 2016, 25.8% in 2018 and 25.1% this September.
The largest change among the 2nd District’s electorate during that period has been the increase in the number of voters who aren’t affiliated with any party, a trend due in part to Oregon’s “Motor Voter” law, which took effect in 2016.
That law automatically registers people to vote if, after visting a DMV to renew a driver’s license or some other transaction, they fail to fill out a form declining to be registered.
The Motor Voter law has added hundreds of thousands of people to Oregon’s voter rolls, but a majority of these newly registered voters have not declared a party affiliation.
The result is the percentage of non-affiliated voters has swelled. In the 2nd District the non-affiliated percentage has risen from 22.7% in 2014 to 27% in 2016, 32.9% in 2018 and this September, for the first time, there are more non-affiliated voters in the District (34.6%) than registered Republicans (33.2%).
“The District is changing,” Jones said.
She points to Walden’s most recent election victory, in November 2018 when he defeated Democratic challenger Jamie McLeod-Skinner.
Walden won 56.3% of the votes to McLeod-Skinner’s 39.4% — the smallest margin of victory in his congressional career.
His previous low was his first race when, as a non-incumbent, he won 61.5% of the votes against Democrat Kevin Campbell.
In Walden’s subsequent re-elections prior to 2018, he received between 66.8% and 73.9% of the votes.
Jones noted that in 2018, for the first time, Walden lost in Deschutes County, where McLeod-Skinner, who lives in that county, received about 100 more votes. Walden won Deschutes County by more than 32,000 votes in 2016.
(Walden also lost his home county, Hood River, to McLeod-Skinner, 6,735 to 3,578.)
Walden dominated in Baker County, with 6,004 votes to McLeod-Skinner’s 1,894.
Van Diepen credits McLeod-Skinner for running a strong campaign, but he doesn’t believe her competitive race against Walden means the 2nd District is on the brink of joining Oregon’s other districts on the Democratic side of the aisle.
“She worked hard for those votes” he said of McLeod-Skinner.
In a video he posted on his website Monday announcing his pending retirement, Walden said he is “confident I would earn the support of 2nd District voters for another term.”
The Cook Political Report rates the district as one of the 160 most “solid” Republican” House districts in the 2020 election. The winner of the Republican primary in May would be the likely front-runner to win the seat in November.
Jones believes the 2nd District has benefited from Walden’s seniority. He is the ranking Republican member of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.
“Greg is right up there in leadership,” Jones said. “A freshman coming in is not going to have the same clout that Greg has. That’s a given.”
Van Diepen, by contrast, said he doesn’t mind that Walden’s replacement will lack seniority.
Van Diepen said he supports term limits for Congress — even a single term — because he believes that the longer lawmakers serve, the more likely they are to negotiate to advance their position rather than to focus on representing their constituents.
Ultimately, Van Diepen said his chief concern is that Walden’s replacement will be a true conservative, regardless of the candidate’s party affiliation.
Although Jones acknowledges that some of her fellow Republicans have at times criticized Walden, saying he isn’t sufficiently conservative to satisfy them, she believes Walden has effectively represented what she sees as the District’s conservative values.
“I’m a conservative, and to me Greg is a conservative,” Jones said. “He is a constitutionalist.”
Van Diepen agrees.
“I think he’s as good as any of them,” he said of Walden.
Van Diepen does believe, though, that Walden was most effective in his first term.
Jones said Walden played a vital role in lobbying President Donald Trump to pardon Dwight and Steven Hammond, the Harney County ranchers who were sentenced to five years in prison after being convicted of lighting fires.
Jones also believes Walden has consistently represented his constituents regarding management and use of natural resources on public land, which makes up more than half of many counties in the 2nd District, including Baker County.
Walden has sponsored legislation intended to increase the rate of logging on federal land and potentially reduce the risk of wildfires.
Jones contends Walden’s support of such bills has benefited not only the 2nd District but all of Oregon.
Although she concedes she’s disappointed that Walden won’t seek another term in Congress, Jones, who said she speaks with Walden on a nearly weekly basis, said she understands, and respects, his decision.
“I think Greg made a good decision for himself and (his wife) Mylene,” Jones said. “I think the District should feel very grateful for the work Greg has put in. It’s been an honor to work with him. He’s one of the good guys.”