By Scott Hammers • The Bulletin

Jim Crary, 64, retired executive, Ashland

Rachael Scdoris-Salerno, 32, sled dog competitor and tour guide operator, Bend

Julian Bell, 46, physician, Ashland

Mike Byrne, 65, stonemason, Hood River

There’s still a year to go until the 2018 primary, but already, Democrats in Central and Eastern Oregon are ramping up their efforts to knock off the state’s only Republican representative in Congress.

A retired executive, doctor, stonemason and dog sled musher are among those lining up to challenge Rep. Greg Walden, the Hood River Republican who’s represented Central and Eastern Oregon since 1998.

Jim Crary, a retired executive from the Ashland area who challenged Walden in 2016, is back for a second shot. He’s been joined by Rachael Scdoris-Salerno, a Bend-area resident best known for competing four times in the 1,000-mile Iditarod sled dog race across Alaska. The field also includes Julian Bell, an Ashland doctor who challenged Gov. Kate Brown in last year’s Democratic primary, and Mike Byrne, a Hood River stonemason.

Crowded Democratic primaries have been uncommon but not unknown since Walden first took office. In 2006, Carol Voisin emerged as the top candidate in a four-way Democratic contest, while in 2014, Aelea Christofferson beat two other aspiring Democratic candidates.

In 10 campaigns, Walden has had little trouble winning — only twice has the Democratic candidate garnered more than 30 percent of the vote in the November election. His opponents have almost all been political newcomers who have not previously held elected office, which also looks to be the case in 2018.

The candidates vying for a chance to take on Walden in November 2018 all concede beating Walden will be an uphill battle but a possibility if everything falls into place 18 months from now.

Crary was already making plans for a second campaign before votes were counted back in November. He’s been back on the campaign trail since January.

Sunday, he was campaigning at a Hispanic cultural fair in Hood River, Walden’s hometown. Crary said he’s attracting more attention now than he did when he was running last fall.

The surprise election of Donald Trump and the first few months of his presidency has activated Democratic-leaning voters, Crary said, including many who were barely engaged with politics before.

“The election, I can tell you, has totally energized so many people,” he said. “The iron is glowing red-hot, and the time to strike is now.”

Scdoris-Salerno filed to launch a formal campaign committee with the Federal Election Commission this week. She declined to respond to multiple requests for an interview.

Bell, an Ashland doctor who opposed Brown in last year’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, said Walden has painted a target on his back by taking a lead role in promoting the Republicans’ health care bill.

Health care is an unusual issue, Bell said, in that most people acknowledge the status quo is imperfect, yet they remain relatively content. Most independent analyses conclude the bill that passed the Republican-controlled House would sharply cut Medicaid and dismantle protections for Americans with pre-existing conditions, setting the stage for a potential backlash.

If voters feel Walden has put their health care is at risk, 2nd District residents who happily cast a ballot for Walden in the past could turn against him or not vote at all, Bell said.

“Whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican, nonaffiliated or an independent, health care goes beyond party lines,” Bell said.

Byrne, a stonemason who, like Walden, hails from Hood River, echoed Bell’s observations about health care. Because federal health care policy can affect almost everybody, Walden’s advocacy of the Republican health care bill makes Walden more vulnerable than he’s been in the past.

Byrne said he would happily support Scdoris-Salerno, if she emerges from next year’s primary as the choice of 2nd District Democrats, and is making plans to introduce her to Wasco County Democrats next month. He’s less excited about Crary, who he dismissed as “unelectable” due to his past career in the fossil fuel industry.

All of the candidates and potential candidates said Walden’s name recognition and fundraising prowess will be difficult to overcome, and that a successful campaign will have to be fueled primarily on grass-roots energy.

Crary said running a competitive campaign will require the candidates’ supporters to maintain something close to the level of enthusiasm they currently have all the way through the next 18 months.

“I tell that to people, this is not a sprint, it’s a marathon,” Crary said. “Don’t burn yourself out.”

— Reporter: 541-383-0387,