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Opinion The Democrats have a ‘candidate quality’ problem, too

Jamie McLeod-Skinner, Democratic candidate for Oregon's 5th Congressional District, addresses supporters at the Silver Moon Brewery on Nov. 8 in Bend, Ore. (Andy Nelson/AP)

One dirty little secret of the midterm elections goes like this: It wasn’t only Republicans who nominated some bad candidates this year.

Like the GOP, President Biden’s party had its own problems with what everyone calls “candidate quality.” The difference is, unlike Republicans, Democrats aren’t ready to talk about it.

Consider the 5th Congressional District of Oregon. Leading Republican and Democratic operatives agree that Rep. Kurt Schrader would have handily won reelection if he’d made it to the general in a district Biden carried by nine points. But he didn’t. Instead, a more liberal Democrat, Jamie McLeod-Skinner, won the nomination in May and then lost the seat to Republican Lori Chavez-DeRemer last week by 8,500 votes.

The 5th District stretches from Portland’s southern suburbs into the Willamette Valley and east toward Bend, a high desert town where the population has boomed during the pandemic with transplants from Seattle and the San Francisco Bay area. Most of Oregon has been blue for years; the pandemic didn’t change that.

Schrader took his primary challenge seriously and won Biden’s first endorsement of 2022. “We don’t always agree, but when it has mattered most, Kurt has been there for me,” the president said.

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Schrader emphasized that he voted with Biden 96 percent of the time, but he was no rubber stamp. He warned that dumping another $1.9 trillion of borrowed money into the economy would supercharge inflation, even though he voted for final passage. He further earned the left’s enmity by opposing a $15 federal minimum wage, price controls on prescription drugs and an assault weapons ban. Organized labor came after Schrader because he once voted against a measure that would have tied the hands of employers trying to avert unionization.

In the primary, McLeod-Skinner emphasized climate change and abortion and branded Schrader “the Joe Manchin of Oregon.” She received early endorsements from Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), the Working Families Party and Indivisible, a liberal activist group.

Chavez-DeRemer, a Latina and former mayor of the Portland suburb of Happy Valley, prevailed in the general by concentrating on crime and casting herself as a moderate. She visited Texas to highlight how drugs coming across the southern border end up in Oregon and exacerbate the homelessness epidemic. Outside groups aired commercials saying McLeod-Skinner would turn Oregon into San Francisco and highlighted backing Chavez-DeRemer received from supporters of defunding the police. “Our team worked hard to bridge the divides across our diverse district,” McLeod-Skinner said in conceding.

When we talked this week, Schrader lamented the left’s “litmus tests” and his party’s drift toward “socialist-type” policies. “We’re leaving the center wide open for Republicans,” he said. “We’ve got to be a bigger-tent party.”

Elsewhere in the midterms, moderation proved a virtue and extremism a vice. Voters preferred civility to conspiracy, decency to divisiveness, reason to resentment, sanity to screaming. Tinfoil hats in both parties failed to win purple places; the sensible middle prevailed.

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This is the Democrats’ unspoken internal challenge. Matt Bennett, a co-founder of Third Way, says candidates that voters considered most mainstream won last week in almost every competitive House, Senate and governor’s race. “The far-left has flipped a grand total of zero seats,” said Bennett.

One bright spot in the cycle: Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Tex.) narrowly beat back a primary challenge from his left in the primary and then easily won in the fall. In a neighboring district of the Rio Grande Valley, however, outspoken liberal Michelle Vallejo beat a moderate by just 30 votes in a primary runoff. Then she lost to Republican Monica De La Cruz by nine points. The GOP picked up a number of seats in New York state under similar circumstances.

Just as conservatives are grumbling that candidates such as Blake Masters in Arizona lost because they didn’t get enough help from GOP leadership, progressives want to blame the party establishment for not investing enough to help McLeod-Skinner, even though she’d lost her two previous races. The Intercept, a left-wing publication, criticized Nancy Pelosi’s House Majority PAC for writing the race off altogether.

Schrader said the left’s push to purge centrists from the House caucus means Democrats won’t be in a position to enact meaningful legislation for at least two years and probably longer. He mourns the moderate Democrats who chose to retire this year, especially Reps. Ron Kind (Wis.), Stephanie Murphy (Fla.) and Kathleen Rice (N.Y.), rather than duke it out with the party’s left wing. Republicans flipped all three of their seats last week.

Democrats overperformed this fall because independents who disapprove of Biden tended to be more worried about the last president than the current one. But if members of the president’s party don’t look in the mirror and do a little soul searching, they might not be so lucky in 2024. “It’s always the Republicans’ fault. We’re just not introspective at all,” Schrader said in our interview. “My seat is example one.”