or-04

Rating Change: DeFazio's OR-04 Moves From Likely to Lean Democrat

These days, it's tough to find good news for House Republicans. But there's a sleeper race bucking the trend in southwestern Oregon, where a bona fide anti-terrorism hero is running against 34-year Democratic incumbent and Transportation and Infrastructure Chair Rep. Peter DeFazio (OR-04). A month out, both parties now regard the race as competitive and are spending accordingly.

For years, the underlying swinginess of DeFazio's 4th CD has been masked by the weakness of his GOP opposition. In 2016, President Trump lost Oregon's 4th CD by just a tenth of a point. But for five cycles in a row, Republicans nominated wacky "alt-scientist" Art Robinson, who opposed public education, believed urine held the secret to human life extension — and lost by double digits each time.

This year, Republicans decided to get their act together. DeFazio faces a much more serious GOP opponent in Alek Skarlatos, a 27-year-old Roseburg High School graduate, former Oregon National Guardsman and Afghanistan veteran best known as the "Paris train attack hero" for thwarting a gunman seeking to kill Americans on a Paris-bound train in August 2015.

For his heroism, Skarlatos was awarded the US Army Soldier's Medal by President Obama and the Legion of Honour from French President Francois Hollande, took a turn on Dancing with the Stars (finishing third) and played himself in the $36.3 million-grossing movie 15:17 to Paris, directed by Clint Eastwood. And at 27, he's a full 45 years younger than the incumbent.

This isn't Skarlatos's first run for office: in 2018, he lost a nonpartisan race for Douglas County commissioner by two points to a well-funded outdoor store owner. But armed with a national profile and the NRCC's backing, he's on track to raise $3 million. He comes across as a libertarian-leaning Trump supporter and attacks DeFazio for "living on a yacht in DC" (DeFazio sleeps in a houseboat).

Over 34 years in the House, DeFazio has cultivated a populist reputation that resonates with Eugene liberals and blue-collar loggers alike. But he hasn't had to run a competitive race in years. Now a powerful committee chair, money won't be a problem. Last week, he took the unusual step of purchasing buying Portland television, which covers a small northern fraction of the 4th CD. 

One Skarlatos ad lambastes DeFazio's "five decades in Washington" and features an age progression of his face, warning DeFazio wants to defund the police and send tax dollars to China. DeFazio has hit back with ads from an Iraq veteran accusing Skarlatos of "blindly following Trump" and featuring Skarlatos on tape saying he doesn't think there should be a minimum wage.

There's a unique downside risk for DeFazio here: the Democratic vote in the 4th CD is extremely dependent on Eugene and Corvallis, home to the University of Oregon (enrollment 23,000) and Oregon State University (28,000) respectively. Oregon votes entirely by mail, but some local observers expect the student vote in both university hubs to be at only half typical strength or less.

As polls have tightened, the GOP-aligned Congressional Leadership Fund just bought time in the district, and national Democratic groups may follow soon. The race moves from the Likely Democrat column to Lean Democrat.