Greg Walden

U.S. Rep. Greg Walden is the ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Oregon is assured of having a new member in Congress in 2021.

Unless U.S. Rep. Greg Walden changes his mind.

The Republican from Hood River stunned a whole lot of folks around the country by announcing he would not seek reelection from the 2nd Congressional District. Barring something bizarre happening, he would have been a shoo-in, as will whichever Republican wins the May primary to replace him. Democrats have little chance in a district that is mostly rural and covers almost two-thirds of Oregon.

Congressional districts are supposed to be roughly equal in population, not square miles. The 2nd District includes all of Eastern Oregon and is so ginormous that the rest of Oregon is compressed into four congressional districts.

Yes, I know, the district includes liberal Ashland, and Bend and Hood River, which are becoming more Democratic, and even Walden has recognized that the district is not turning redder on the political spectrum. But even though Walden endured his closest reelection campaign last year, he still beat Democrat challenger Jamie McLeod-Skinner by 17 percentage points.

Voter registrations within the district give clues but don’t tell the full story. As of September, the 571,270 registered voters included 189,893 Republicans and 143,353 Democrats. The largest segment is composed of nonaffiliated voters — 197,584 — with the remainder spread among small political parties.

To understand Walden’s legacy, I turned to political science professor Jim Moore of Pacific University.

“Walden’s legacy will be more procedural than legislative. In terms of policies, he worked well with (Oregon U.S. Sen. Ron) Wyden to protect timber payments to counties — in their various forms — over the years,” Moore said. “He was also a strong advocate for natural resource-based industries in his district and across the state.

“But he did not really work with the counties to figure out what they need to do when federal payments-in-lieu-of-taxes come to their inevitable end.”

An April profile of Walden in Politico began, “Greg Walden is trying to find his own way in Donald Trump’s party.” Walden occasionally deviated from President Trump’s positions.

In the Politico story, Walden described himself as a committee chairman in exile, waiting to resume leadership of the House Energy and Commerce Committee once Republicans regain control of the House from the Democrats. But Walden, as Politico has reported, is the 20th Republican to announce he or she will not seek reelection in 2020.

Moore noted that Walden’s big job as chair of a powerful House committee was to repeal Obamacare, which did not happen. That failure can be pinned more on the House speaker and Trump, he said, “but Walden had a crucial role that just could not overcome the objections of enough members of his own caucus in those final votes.

“Walden as a legislative leader is a much bigger legacy. His crowning achievement was his chairing of the National Republican Congressional Committee, guiding it to increasing Republican membership in the House. He was also part of the House Republican leadership as it negotiated the Tea Party years through Speakers (John) Boehner and (Paul) Ryan.

“Walden was also part of the shift in Oregon from moderate R’s to more conservative R’s. When he was elected to the House, the Democratic employees in (Congressman) Bob Smith’s Medford office were let go and replaced by Republicans. Walden, who had always been understood to be a Vic Atiyeh — or Roger Martin – type Republican, came to be seen as mirroring the change to the dominant social conservative and more libertarian – i.e., Ronald Reagan-style – fiscal policies of the Republican Party.

“Because of Walden’s shift as the Republican party grew more conservative, his statewide political potential — often spoken about as gubernatorial material — began to recede. That combination of a much larger Democratic voter pool and Walden’s appeal only to new-style Republicans seemed an insuperable obstacle to Walden’s chances for Oregon statewide office or a run for the U.S. Senate.”

In a Facebook video announcing he was not seeking reelection, Walden said he was confident that Republicans could reclaim the U.S. House of Representatives and he could have won. But when his term ends in January 2021, he would conclude 30 years in public service and not seek election to another office.

On the other hand, when I sat next to then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2011 during a national editorial writers meeting at the U.S. State Department, she too said she was done with politics.

Who’s next? Democrats professed glee at his retirement announcement. Democratic Party of Oregon Chair KC Hanson released a statement, saying, “The 2nd Congressional District is home to an array of exceptional Democratic leaders who have advocated for their communities — any one of whom would be an excellent representative at the federal level. …

“Now Walden has seen the writing on the wall and is retiring rather than risk defeat in 2020.”

And from Oregon GOP chairman Bill Currier: “Like Congressman Walden, we are very confident of having a strong nominee for Oregon’s 2nd Congressional District and winning the seat again, as well as taking back the House of Representatives in 2020 from the unaccomplished and impeachment-obsessed Democrats.”

Dick Hughes has been covering the Oregon political scene since 1976.

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