Conservative House Democrat Kurt Schrader is getting a boost from Center Forward, a pharmaceutical industry-funded “dark money” group, in his competitive primary race against challenger Jamie McLeod-Skinner in Oregon’s Fifth Congressional District.
Center Forward reportedly plans to drop over $300,000 in the Bend, Oregon media market from March 25 through the Democratic U.S. House primary on May 17, according to a media monitoring service alert viewed by Sludge. The group is closely aligned with the Blue Dog Coalition, the moderate bloc that Rep. Schrader has co-chaired in the past, and now helps lead as the PAC chair.
The expenditure will be the largest outside spend in the primary to date when it is reported to the Federal Election Commission. [Update: the amended FEC report posted on April 12 was for $385,000.] In a comment to The Intercept, Schrader highlighted his cause fighting “dark money in politics,” but now is benefiting from a home-stretch ad blitz by a dark money group closely tied to him and other Blue Dogs.
Center Forward’s TV spots will likely aim to bolster Schrader’s re-election chances, after four of the six Democratic Democratic county parties in his district chose to endorse his primary opponent, a break with the traditional habit of sticking with incumbents. The Intercept released an in-depth policy breakdown from the Democratic Party of Clackamas County of its decision to endorse McLeod-Skinner, pointing to Scharder’s vote against provisions in last year’s Build Back Better Act that would have allowed Medicare to negotiate the price of pharmaceutical drugs, among other positions.
As a 501(c)(4) nonprofit, Center Forward does not disclose its donors publicly, but Sludge’s review of other organizations’ giving shows that about 30 percent of its funding in recent years has come from drug company lobbying group the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA). In 2020, PhRMA gave Center Forward $2.7 million. Center Forward has also received funding from the National Restaurant Association, cable industry group NCTA, and wireless company association CTIA, according to tax documents. Center Forward’s four directors are all corporate lobbyists, including its chair, former Rep. Bud Cramer (Ala.), and Cindy Brown of Forbes Tate Partners, who lobbies Congress for at least 20 pharmaceutical companies and industry association clients. The nonprofit had more than $10 million in revenue in 2020, according to ProPublica Nonprofit Explorer.
“Kurt Schrader claims he’s fighting to get big money out of politics. I’m calling on Schrader to stand by his word and tell his Big Pharma donors to take these ads down,” Jamie McLeod-Skinner tells Sludge. “I’m running for Congress to help working families get by in Oregon, and that’s why I’m not taking a dime from corporate PACs, including Big Pharma.”
In September, Schrader joined with two House Democrats—Scott Peters of California and Kathleen Rice of New York—in blocking a sweeping package of drug pricing reforms in a vote in the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
The health professional and pharmaceutical and health products industries have been Schrader’s top two donor industries over his career, according to OpenSecrets, combining for nearly $1.6 million given to his House campaigns. The PAC of Pfizer, the company where Schrader’s grandfather was a top executive, has contributed $72,500 to the Subcommittee on Health member over his career.
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The Facebook Ad Library shows that Center Forward has already spent money this cycle on a number of digital ads thanking Schrader, with a call to “ask him to keep fighting for a better economy and more jobs,” in campaigns that also applaud Kathleen Rice and Blue Dogs like Scott Peters. The group’s Facebook ads thanking Schrader in 2021 have cost them a total of up to $53,000.
The Center Forward Committee is the group’s super PAC affiliate that will likely be the entity that funds the TV ads. Its top donor is Center Forward, which since 2014 has funneled over $4.2 million to it, according to Federal Election Commission data. Its second-largest donor has been the Blue Dog PAC—which Schrader chairs—with over $900,000 given during that time. The New Democrat PAC has contributed $100,000 to Center Forward’s PAC, and more donations came from the National Restaurant Association and tobacco giant Altria.
Schrader’s last general election contest was supported by $50,000 in spending by the Center Forward Committee, according to records maintained on OpenSecrets. In 2018, the super PAC No Labels Action spent nearly $47,000 in Schrader’s Oregon race, and Schrader is a prominent member of the group’s bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus.
As of the end of last year, Schrader’s campaign had over $3.5 million in cash on hand to the McLeod-Skinner campaign’s just over $200,000. Unions including the Oregon Education Association and Service Employees International Union Oregon have backed the bid of McLeod-Skinner, an emergency response coordinator and attorney who ran for Congress in 2018.
Schrader’s campaign commercials that started airing earlier this month claim he’s been “taking on drug companies to lower insulin costs and making sure Medicare can negotiate lower drug prices,” despite the fact that in September he voted against the Democrats’ major bill to allow Medicare to negotiate with drug companies.
Schrader’s TV ads also attempted to get out ahead of scrutiny of his record, in the same spot claiming he’s “leading the fight to get big money out of politics.” So far this cycle, over 87.5% of the campaign money he’s raised has come from business PACs, according to OpenSecrets, and in the 2020 cycle his share from business PACs topped 93%, or nearly $1.4 million. Schrader’s nearly $97,000 in contributions from the pharmaceutical and health products industry this year places him in the top five House Democrat recipients of the industry’s cash.
Center Forward and the Schrader campaign did not respond to inquiries about the ad buy by time of publishing.