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A tight congressional race in Oregon could signal the breadth of the GOP's reach

<strong>Left</strong>: Mike Erickson, a Republican candidate from Oregon, running for the U.S. House, appears in a photo provided Oct. 11. <strong>Right:</strong> Rep. Andrea Salinas, D-Lake Oswego, speaks at a PCUN rally to kick off a campaign for farmworker overtime on Nov. 16, 2021 at the Oregon State Capitol in Salem, Ore.
Reuters; Abigail Dollins/Statesman Journal/USA Today Network/Reuters
Left: Mike Erickson, a Republican candidate from Oregon, running for the U.S. House, appears in a photo provided Oct. 11. Right: Rep. Andrea Salinas, D-Lake Oswego, speaks at a PCUN rally to kick off a campaign for farmworker overtime on Nov. 16, 2021 at the Oregon State Capitol in Salem, Ore.

On a recent rainy Saturday, about two dozen Democratic volunteers squeezed into a small office in a Portland, Oregon suburb.

Democratic candidate Andrea Salinas addressed canvassers at her Tualatin, Oregon office in an increasingly tight race in the state's new 6th Congressional District.

"Thank you all so much. I consider this soggy sock season here in Oregon when we're all out there canvassing and making sure we're talking to voters," Salinas said.

The state of Oregon has long been a safe blue haven for Democrats. But this year, Republicans are threatening upsets in races across the state.

Recently, the Cook Political Report shifted Oregon's newest congressional district from lean Democratic to a toss-up as the GOP candidate there gains momentum.

The district, which was the center of one of the most expensive races in the country earlier this year, runs southwest of Portland into vast wine country and past the state capital of Salem.

The district's mix of urban and rural areas is making for a tight political race this year, said Chris Stout, a politics professor at Oregon State University.

"In a year like 2022, where Republicans are having an advantage and people are concerned about crime ... inflation, it makes it a much more competitive race," Stout said.

Ultimately, the contest in this district could help tell a larger national story about how far the Republican Party's reach truly goes this election cycle.

Oregon's largest share of Latino voters

The new Oregon congressional district also boasts the state's largest concentration of Latino residents, with 21% identifying as Hispanic.

Yolanda Welch, who came out to canvass for Salinas, said she relates to Salinas' Mexican roots.

"She grew up like me," Welch, who moved to Oregon region in 1974, said in her native Spanish.

Welch said Salinas, a former longtime state lawmaker, can respond to rising inflation.

Welch, a working caretaker, said she's turned off by the GOP.

"I'm not like Republicans. They have so much money. I don't," Welch said with a laugh.

"Oregonians are struggling"

The district's GOP candidate, Mike Erickson, is a wealthy supply chain executive who has self funded much of his campaign.

So far, both sides have raised more than $2 million. Erickson has gained traction with rural voters while Salinas commands support in urban and suburban areas.

And recently, the Congressional Leadership Fund, a political action committee tied to House GOP leaders, dumped another $800,000 in ads into the district.

In an emailed statement to NPR, Erickson said Oregonians have tired of higher costs and a long-running homeless crisis that has not improved under Democrats' watch.

"Oregonians are struggling with out-of-control inflation and gas prices due to reckless Democrat spending. Oregonians are tired of watching our state falling behind in education, disrespecting and underfunding law enforcement, and allowing camping on public property," Erickson said. "The Democrats have had decades to work on and solve the problem, and it just is getting worse."

Erickson also said he believes he's well-positioned to represent the district's Latino population because of his business background and ability to address inflation.

He's a perennial Republican candidate and lost several previous election runs. In past runs, Erickson was hurt after he was linked to an ex-girlfriend's abortion and recently said he wasn't aware the woman sought the service.

He was also arrested in 2016 for driving under the influence. He's now suing Salinas over a related ad to the DUI arrest.

Erickson declined to elaborate on the claims to NPR, but told the Oregonian the DUI arrest was one mistake against the law.

"I've never been perfect," he said.

Erickson and his supporters say despite past setbacks, this year is his chance to get to the U.S. Capitol.

At a coffee shop in the town of McMinnville, Republican Chris Chenoweth says despite those setbacks, timing is finally on Erickson's side.

"I think Mike's going to win," Chenoweth said.

Chenoweth, who sits on McMinnville's city council, which is located in a rural pocket of Oregon's 6th Congressional District, said national issues are energizing the district's Republicans.

"You start looking at your bread and butter kitchen table issues. It's headwinds against the Democrats for this election cycle," Chenoweth said.

Salinas, who won a bitter Democratic primary this year, remains bullish as she talks more about the economy and other top worries.

"I don't have to be the ... flag bearer for the Democratic Party," Salinas said. "I want to be the flag bearer for the people of the 6th Congressional District. Right. And really addressing their needs, because I know that people are suffering right now. And that is what motivates me to do the work."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Claudia Grisales is a congressional reporter assigned to NPR's Washington Desk.