Gary A. Warner
The Bulletin

U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, the only Republican in Oregon’s congressional delegation, announced Monday he will not run again in 2020.

“I will not seek reelection to the U.S. House of Representatives, nor election to any other office,” Walden, 62, said in a video statement. “Instead I will close the public service chapter of my life, thankful for the friends I’ve made and the successful work we’ve done together.”

Walden’s departure means the 2nd Congressional District seat will be up for grabs for the first time in a generation. Walden won in 1998 and was reelected 10 more times, most recently just last year. Walden always won with more than 60% of the vote — until Democrat Jamie McLeod-Skinner of Terrebonne held him to 56% in 2018.

Walden became the 17th Republican House member to announce they won’t run for reelection.

Five House Democrats have said they won’t run. Democrats say the gap is a sign that veteran Republicans see little chance for their party to win back control of the House after losing it to Democrats in 2018.

“Walden has seen the writing on the wall, and is retiring rather than risk defeat in 2020,” said Carla “K.C.” ­Hanson, chair of the Democratic Party of Oregon.

Walden tried to preempt such speculation in his announcement.

“I am confident I could earn the support of 2nd District voters for another term,” he said. “I’m also optimistic that a path exists for Republicans to recapture a majority in the House.”

Walden gave no specifics about his plans after Congress.

“For me, the time has come to pursue new challenges and opportunities,” he said.

Walden’s statement ruled out a bid for any other political office this year: U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon, is running for a third term. Oregon’s secretary of state, attorney general and treasurer positions on the 2020 ballot have yet to draw a high-profile Republican into any of the races. Walden has been lobbied in the past to run for governor. He could be again in 2022 when the state’s top job will be open because Gov. Kate Brown is ineligible to run again due to term limits.

A more immediate question is who will take Walden’s place in Congress. The sprawling, largely rural 2nd Congressional District has been a reliable Republican bastion. But rapid growth in Bend and Hood River have started to shift the political complexion.

“It sure as heck ain’t getting any redder,” Walden told Politico in April.

But it is also still a long way from turning true blue. Walden narrowly lost Deschutes County for the first time in 2018. But Hood River County was the only other county in the district Walden lost. The Cook Political Report rates the district as one of the 160 most “solid” Republican” House districts in the 2020 election. The winner of the Republican primary in May would be the likely front-runner to win the seat in November.

No Republican stepped forward immediately after Walden’s announcement to stake a claim to the seat. State lawmakers who represent portions of the same area as Walden could have a head start, if they want to try. Sen. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario, Sen. Bill Hansell, R-Athena, and Sen. Dennis Linthicum, R-Klamath Falls, have large geographic chunks of Walden’s district. Walden’s hometown of Hood River is represented by Sen. Chuck Thomsen, R-Hood River. Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, has one of the district’s largest population centers. A wild card would be Knute Buehler, the 2018 GOP nominee for governor who lost to Brown. The nearly $20 million Buehler spent on the campaign last year ensures a copious amount of name recognition for the congressional race.

The Medford Mail-­Tribune reported other possible Walden replacements making the rounds of top state GOP circles on Monday: Circuit Judge Mike McLane, the ex-House minority leader from Powell Butte, and former Rep. Jason Conger, R-Bend, now an attorney in Bend. Former Sen. Jason Atkinson, R-Central Point, told the paper he was “seriously considering” a bid.

The question mark on the Democratic side is McLeod-Skinner, who won just under 40% of the vote against Walden in 2018. Now a rare well-known Democrat from east of the Cascades, she has been embraced by large portions of the state Democratic Party as a rising star. She has announced as a candidate for secretary of state in 2020 and said she would cede the Walden race to another Democrat. Asked if Walden’s announcement had any impact on her political plans, McLeod-Skinner sidestepped the question.

“Since his announcement, I’ve received a lot of calls, and I am in the process of returning them,” she said Monday.

Another factor for any candidate to weigh is that 2020 will be the last election before lines for Congress and the Legislature are redrawn in 2021 following the 2020 U.S. Census.

Oregon could receive a sixth congressional seat because of population growth, likely scrambling the current district lines. The Legislature, with Democratic supermajorities in both chambers, draws the lines. Brown, a Democrat, then has to give the plan her approval.

While Walden most often backed the Republican agenda in the House, he was not in lockstep with the desires of President Donald Trump.

Walden supported Trump’s stand on repealing the Affordable Care Act and to relax net neutrality rules. He has opposed efforts to impeach Trump. As chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee after Trump’s election, he shepherded much of the White House agenda that came before him to approval and on to the House floor for votes.

But Walden was one of eight Republicans to vote for extending protections against discrimination against LGBTQ people. He voted against President Trump’s most aggressive steps to fund the building of a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border and was among a small number of Republicans who sided with Democrats in ending the government shutdown.

In his statement, Walden focused on efforts over 20 years to serve his district on issues such as opioids, forest health, and rural access to high-speed broadband.

“Rural Oregon values run deeply in my veins,” Walden said. “My ancestors arrived here in 1845, and I grew up on a cherry orchard in The Dalles with parents who survived the Great Depression. They taught me the true meaning of community; the importance of giving back; and the value of hard work. That’s why I’ve given it my all for the people and the way of life we so enjoy in Oregon.”

The son of former state Rep. Peter Walden, Greg Walden was elected to the Oregon House in 1989. He was majority leader for the 1991 and 1993 legislative sessions. He was appointed to the Senate in 1995.

Walden has a reputation as one of the Republicans’ most effective GOP fundraisers. He was deputy chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee when the GOP won control of the House in 2010 and kept it in 2012. He was chairman in 2014 and 2016, when the Republicans solidified their dominance in the House. Walden had left the position prior to the 2018 election that saw Republicans lose the House.

Walden has been an active fundraiser for himself. Over his career, he’s raised and spent nearly $25 million, despite having several races with token competition. According to the website opensecrets.org, the largest percentage of contributions have come from the telecommunications and pharmaceutical industries.

Walden currently has over $1.8 million cash on hand for the 2020 race he now says he will not run.

Walden and his wife, ­Mylene, owned and operated radio stations in Hood River and The Dalles for more than two decades. They are the parents of two sons, Anthony, 29, and Garrison, who died of a congenital heart defect in 1994.

— Reporter: 541-383-0350, gwarner@bendbulletin.com .

EO Media Group contributed to this report.

24334258