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After surprising wins, Northwest congresswomen start precarious first term

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Courtesy of Lori Chavez-DeRemer
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OPB
Lori Chavez-DeRemer, a Republican, won Oregon's 5th Congressional District in November's election.

There is little time to reflect for congressional freshmen, especially those who flipped their districts from one-party control.

Seated at a dinner table the Saturday after Election Day, Marie Gluesenkamp Perez stared quietly at her phone. The margins in her race had for days been too narrow for an official call. She awaited a decisive ballot drop.

Then, it landed. As her campaign manager plugged new vote totals into a spreadsheet, a deluge of headlines started declaring her the winner of Southwest Washington’s 3rd Congressional District.

The pace of the evening — and her political career — ratcheted up.

“CNN and Wolf Blitzer would like to talk to you in the next 30 minutes,” her campaign manager, Phil Gardner, told her. They were the only two from her campaign in the nondescript Airbnb.

“What do we do?” Gluesenkamp Perez asked, still processing her victory. He replied that they were going to do the interview straight from the living room over Zoom. He laughed and asked if she brought makeup.

Although the Democrat won arguably the biggest upset of the 2022 midterms, there was little time for her to reflect. She and other congressional freshmen, especially if they overcame long odds, are often the most vulnerable to losing reelection.

There are two such politicians in the Pacific Northwest who flipped districts that had been controlled by the opposite party for years. Besides Gluesenkamp Perez, Republican Lori Chavez-DeRemer won Oregon’s 5th Congressional District.

Now elected, both will have to figure out how they will hang onto their seats even as they get acquainted with the halls of Congress. With a presidential race looming, their districts’ opposite-leaning makeup could turn the next cycle into a bigger challenge than the previous one.

Proving yourself

Jim Moore, a political science professor at Pacific University, said both candidates should feel a target on their backs. He said they must quickly prove to their constituencies they are effective.

“So the key is what service do they bring to their district? Do people in the district connect them with things that are happening in the district?” Moore said.

In practice, that means a lawmaker must stake ownership in key legislation, and find a role on political committees. The next congressional session convenes Jan. 3.

When Chavez-DeRemer arrives full-time in Washington D.C., she plans to focus on representing small businesses. She said she and her team won’t be “forgetting who we are” just because the 2024 race looms.

“Maybe in the future, in this particular seat, the winds are going to be in my face. Maybe the dynamics will change with the electorate,” she said. “I think I’m still going to be a good fit for this district.”

As freshmen, neither she nor Gluesenkamp Perez are likely to land prime committee assignments. Both hold out hopes for a spot on the House Transportation Committee, though acknowledge that is unlikely.

That assignment could provide a marquee project on which to attach their names: the Interstate 5 bridge. Replacing the major thoroughfare has been an evasive project for the region. Recent cost estimates put the replacement at somewhere near $6 billion, and Northwest lawmakers who land the project could be seen as job creators.

Both also are eying committees that could lead to clear economic benefits in their home bases.

Gluesenkamp Perez said she would welcome a spot on the House Natural Resources Committee. Her district, like many in the Northwest, endured a painful decline in timber jobs when prominent environmental regulations took effect in the latter half of the 20th century.

Chavez-DeRemer, likewise, expressed interest in a spot on the House Agriculture Committee. Her district is splashed with farmland in both Central Oregon and the mid-Willamette Valley.

That jobs, wages and broad economic issues are central to their first terms isn’t a surprise to anyone who followed their campaigns. On the trail, both candidates often tapped their business backgrounds. Gluesenkamp Perez co-owns an auto body shop in Portland, while Chavez-DeRemer co-founded a network of medical clinics.

“Even if you’re not a small business owner, you can read the room. You can see a lot of family businesses are getting bought out and consolidated,” Gluesenkamp Perez said. “It’s not good for our economy. It’s not good for our workforce. I think people really relate to that.”

Gluesenkamp Perez has already announced legislation that she plans to lead. She has drawn attention to so-called right to repair laws. Those laws strive to thwart corporate practices that discourage consumers from maintaining purchased products and instead buy new.

The Southwest Washington Democrat has also already played a role in one federal law. She supported a proposal backed by her predecessor, U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, that gave more than 23 acres of federal property to Skamania County.

The property conveyance will bring an estimate $600,000 annually in property taxes to the rural county. Herrera Beutler sponsored the legislation over the summer, and Sen. Maria Cantwell helped it through the Senate. But all three campaigns said Gleusenkamp Perez’s support made its passage in the omnibus bill smoother.

“If the incoming Democrat opposed it, I think it would have been a lot harder to get this over the finish line,” a congressional staffer told OPB.

The Trump factor

Those are the sorts of wins that Moore, the political scientist, said are important for freshmen in Congress. The race for 2024 has already begun, he said, whether they like it or not.

“That first reelection is the most vulnerable they will ever be in their entire career,” he said. “They haven’t built up much of an incumbency factor.”

Between the two, Chavez-DeRemer may face an easier path, he said. Redistricting changed the 5th Congressional District’s boundaries, which renders historical voting trends less predictive. The district could lean more Republican that previously thought.

Gluesenkamp Perez’s victory, on the other hand, was a longer shot. The district is mostly the same as the one that supported Trump twice. What may be working in her favor today is that the Republican Party is in disarray, and her opponent this November was a hardline Trump supporter.

Trump’s future and the future of Trump-brand politics will be a major factor for both freshmen’s re-election bids, Moore said. The former president is seeking the 2024 Republican nomination for president.

“It simply has to do with President Trump. Is he on the ballot? Is he the leader of the party, or has the party moved beyond him?” Moore said. “All those are questions that are really going to determine how this all plays out.”

Chavez-DeRemer, who did not sidle up to Trump on the campaign trail, expressed optimism.

“We’re going to keep this seat,” she said. “But we know we’re not going to do that without building on that trust, without delivering on the promises we made, and without listening to the people of Oregon.”

Gluesenkamp Perez, likewise, is determined to keep her seat. In D.C., she is vying to carve out a career that will show she represents the district’s numerous Republicans. Herrera Beutler’s campaign has demurred at questions of her future. Meanwhile, Joe Kent, the former Green Beret who lost to Gluesenkamp Perez in the midterm, recently said at a Republican event that he plans to run again in 2024.

But Gluesenkamp Perez pointed to thousands of voters in her district who split their ballots, voting for her and for Tiffany Smiley, a Republican candidate for Senate.

“They find a candidate they can believe in,” Gluesenkamp Perez said. “I think we get obsessed with messaging, we get obsessed with the platform. Those are important, but it’s also important to remember who the candidates are, where they come from. That really matters.”
Copyright 2023 Oregon Public Broadcasting