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National GOP leader McCarthy piles on Portland criticism in pitch for Oregon Republicans

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., center, stumps for GOP congressional candidates at a Tigard hotel on Aug. 24, 2022.
Dirk VanderHart
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House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., center, stumps for GOP congressional candidates at a Tigard hotel on Aug. 24, 2022.

Oregon Republicans have made a ritual of tearing into Portland and its policies in election years. On Wednesday, the top Republican in the U.S. House of Representatives decided to get in on the action.

As he raises funds for Republican congressional candidates throughout the West, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., appeared at a Tigard hotel to tear into “defund the police” policies he said had exacerbated crime in Portland and other liberal cities.

“The one size fits all that the Democrats have about just cutting police does not work,” he said. “We watch the homicides go up. Crime goes up. Communities’ economics go down. The real question is how many people in the last two years seek to go to downtown Portland.”

Appearing alongside U.S. Rep. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario, and three GOP candidates hoping to prevail in November, McCarthy talked of rising murders and disorder in Portland, explicitly tying those issues to a progressive movement to slash police funding.

Top Democrats including President Joe Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi have said repeatedly they do not agree with a push to defund law enforcement espoused by some of their party’s most progressive members — and that they in fact have increased police funding. While McCarthy linked the majority party to defunding police, he made no actual claim that they’d done so, repeatedly touting federal grants for law enforcement and promising to bolster the criteria for receiving those grants.

Flanking McCarthy were mayors and other elected officials from cities in the Portland area, including Troutdale, Gresham, Canby and Aurora. As part of the event’s roundtable format, they brought public safety concerns to McCarthy, many urging him to ensure their small communities could compete for federal public safety money.

“We’ve seen firsthand the issues of Portland that have crept into Gresham,” said Gresham City Councilwoman Sue Piazza. “The crime in Gresham has gone up exponentially. It’s still unbelievable to me.”

Wednesday’s visit was further evidence that the GOP sees Oregon as a potentially fruitful place to flip Democratic House seats as it attempts to retake the chamber in November. McCarthy has made no secret that he badly wants to be the next speaker of the House.

Republicans currently hold just one of the state’s five congressional districts — a safely red Eastern Oregon seat occupied by Bentz. But with national political winds at their backs, newly reshaped district boundaries and a brand new congressional district open for the taking, the party believes it can net at least one additional seat in the Beaver State.

Republicans are particularly optimistic about the 5th Congressional District, which was reshaped in last year’s redistricting process and now stretches from Portland to Bend.

Democratic Rep. Kurt Schrader, a seven-term incumbent, lost a primary challenge from Jamie McLeod-Skinner, a Terrebonne attorney and consultant who ran to his left. She faces Republican former Happy Valley Mayor Lori Chavez-DeRemer in a race many analysts believe is a toss-up. The political forecasting site fivethirtyeight currently gives Chavez-DeRemer a “slight edge.”

One sign of GOP bullishness in the district: The Congressional Leadership Fund, a Republican super PAC affiliated with McCarthy, announced in April it had spent $3.3 million to reserve ad space in the Portland market.

Republicans appear to have a tougher fight in the other two Oregon districts they’d like to flip this year.

In the 4th Congressional District that includes much of coastal and southwest Oregon, Democratic Labor Commissioner Val Hoyle and Republican Alek Skarlatos are vying to fill the opening left by outgoing Democratic Congressman Peter DeFazio. Skarlatos, a former Oregon Army National Guardsman who won fame for his role in foiling a 2015 terror attack in France, mounted a competitive campaign against DeFazio two years ago.

But under redistricting the seat has grown bluer, a factor DeFazio cited when announcing his retirement last year. Democrats now hold an 8% registration advantage. Even so, Republicans have named Skarlatos one of their “trailblazer” candidates, signaling they think he has a chance to flip the district.

One candidate national Republicans haven’t talked up much: Mike Erickson, a businessman and three-time congressional hopeful who won a competitive GOP primary for Oregon’s new 6th Congressional District.

Erickson faces state Rep. Andrea Salinas, D-Lake Oswego, in a district that stretches from Portland to Salem and west to the coast range. Democrats hold a registration advantage of more than 5 points, and many forecasters believe the party has a good chance to prevail in the district.

McCarthy offered no hint Wednesday his candidates could lose.

“I believe this election’s gonna change the course of history,” he said. “Oregon could be a fundamental state that changes their direction. I think voters want to see something different.”

Portland has long served as a foil for Republican candidates keen to depict the city’s problems and policies as an example of Democratic failures or overreach. That’s been especially true since 2020, when a combination of pandemic closures, rising homelessness and convulsive racial justice protests attracted the attention of national Republicans like former President Donald Trump.

After calls by some progressive groups and city officials, Portland trimmed its police budget and got rid of a gun violence reduction team that critics charged disproportionately targeted Black residents. The city has since reinstated a similar effort under a different name and with more oversight.

At the same time, Portland has seen a surge in shootings and murders. In 2021, the city saw a record 92 homicides, and it could surpass that number this year. Assaults and property crime were up last year compared to 2019, according to Portland Police Bureau statistics.

Those issues are not unique to Portland, or even Democrat-led states and cities. McCarthy’s own hometown of Bakersfield, led by a Republican mayor and under the jurisdiction of a law-and-order district attorney, has seen increases in murder, sexual assault and robberies.

McCarthy suggested those problems came from state policies passed by Democrats.

Like many downtowns nationwide, Portland has also struggled to bounce back to pre-pandemic form. A recent much-publicized study suggested the city has lagged behind other large and mid-sized cities in attracting people back downtown. The Portland Business Alliance released its own data on Tuesday countering that narrative and suggesting foot traffic in the downtown core has surged of late.

McCarthy has recently traveled around the West touting candidates. On Monday, he stumped for a Republican congresswoman in New Mexico under the auspices of an education roundtable, and yesterday held an event in Las Vegas to support three GOP candidates in Nevada.

National Democrats issued a statement ahead of McCarthy’s visit. But where the House minority leader wanted to talk crime, the Democrats hammered on the issue they most want to put before voters: Abortion and the demise of Roe v. Wade.

“Oregonians overwhelmingly support a woman’s right to choose — but that hasn’t stopped Alek Skarlatos, Lori Chavez-DeRemer, and Mike Erickson from pushing an extreme anti-abortion agenda,” Johanna Warshaw, a spokesperson for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said in a statement. “With this visit from Kevin McCarthy, the Oregon GOP field has made clear they would be a solid vote for a nationwide abortion ban.”

Congressman Earl Blumenauer, a Portland Democrat who is in no danger of losing his seat this year, offered his own thoughts. In a statement, he attacked McCarthy for threatening to investigate FBI officials after the agency executed a search warrant on former President Donald Trump’s home earlier this month. Agents were reportedly looking for documents Trump kept improperly when departing the White House, including highly sensitive material.

“The notion that Republican enablers want to discuss public safety while they excuse Donald Trump’s illegal handling of highly classified materials and attack the FBI is shameful,” Blumenauer’s statement said. “This is pure grandstanding when America needs leadership.”

Copyright 2022 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Dirk VanderHart covers Oregon politics and government for OPB. Before barging onto the radio in 2018, he spent more than a decade as a newspaper reporter—much of that time reporting on city government for the Portland Mercury. He’s also had stints covering chicanery in Southwest Missouri, the wilds of Ohio in Ohio, and all things Texas on Capitol Hill.