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New boundaries, no incumbent: Oregon’s 4th Congressional district features wide open primary

Seven of the eight Democrats on the ballot in the May primary gathered for a forum at the Eugene City Club.
Rachael McDonald
Seven of the eight Democrats on the ballot in the May primary gathered for a forum at the Eugene City Club.

In November, 1986–the last time there was no incumbent on the ballot in Oregon’s 4th Congressional district–Ronald Reagan was in the White House, the Berlin Wall was still standing, and Boston’s “Amanda” was at the top of the charts.

That spring, Peter DeFazio won a four-way Democratic primary by less than 1,000 votes. The seat was open after incumbent Jim Weaver, also a Democrat, decided to run for Senate.

DeFazio had worked as an aide to Weaver and later served as a Lane County Commissioner. That fall, he won 55% of the vote against his Republican opponent. And for the next three decades, DeFazio won election after election, sometimes running folksy ads that featured his dogs.

But when you’ve served in Congress as long as he has, there are frequent rumors of your impending retirement. Last December, DeFazio rendered those rumors permanently moot when he announced that he would not seek a 19th term.

“It's time for someone to carry the torch, and time for me to look to new challenges," DeFazio told KLCC’s Oregon Grapevine podcast in February.

That announcement led to a flurry of interest among Democrats, as open seats in Oregon’s Congressional delegation are rare. By the March filing deadline, eight had filed to run in the May primary.

DeFazio threw his support behind one of them: Val Hoyle–a former state lawmaker who was elected in 2018 as Oregon Labor Commissioner.

With such a crowded field, DeFazio’s backing was significant, said University of Oregon political science professor Priscilla Southwell.

"Peter DeFazio's endorsement carries a lot of weight, certainly, among Democrats," said Southwell.

DeFazio cited Hoyle’s legislative experience in his endorsement. The only other candidate in the race who’s held elected office is Sami Al-Abdrabbuh, who serves on the Corvallis School Board.

Southwell said in a normal year, Hoyle’s resume could be enough to carry her to victory, but voters might be in a different sort of mood this time around.

"If I were someone other than Val Hoyle, I would be campaigning on the outsider platform,” she said. “I'd be saying 'Listen, we've had enough of Democrats and Republicans who have been in office for a really long time, whoever they are, whatever party, they haven't managed to solve a lot of Oregon's problems.’"

For her part, Hoyle has led the Democratic field in fundraising, taking in more than her next two opponents combined in the first three months of the year. The winner of the Democratic primary will face Republican Alek Skarlatos, who’s unopposed for the GOP nomination.

Skarlatos lost to DeFazio in the 2020 election in the final contest featuring the 4th District’s old borders.

New boundaries taking effect after redistricting mean the number of Democrats in the 4th District increased by almost two percentage points, though unaffiliated and third party voters outnumber both Democrats and Republicans.

While the district’s borders didn’t change dramatically, the new version takes in Lincoln County and drops Josephine and Linn Counties. Cities such as Eugene, Springfield and Corvallis remained in the 4th District.

Aside from Hoyle and Al-Abdrabbuh, the other Democrats on the ballot are Doyle Canning, Andrew Kalloch, G. Tommy Smith, Jake Matthews, John Selker and Steve Laible.

While Hoyle leads in fundraising, Canning, Selker, and Kalloch have all reported six-figure totals.

Ballots go out in the mail in late April, with the primary scheduled for May 17.

Chris Lehman has been reporting on Oregon issues since 2006. He joined the KLCC news department in December 2018 and became News Director in March 2023. Chris was born and raised in Pennsylvania, and graduated from Temple University with a degree in journalism. His public broadcasting career includes stops in Louisiana and Illinois. Chris has filed for national programs including “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered.”
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