Since arriving in Washington two decades ago, Greg Walden has earned a reputation for his loyalty to his party. So his occasional resistance to Trump this year has surprised congressional observers. | Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Greg Walden is trying to find his own way in Donald Trump’s party.
Walden, the top Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee and former chief of the House GOP’s campaign arm, has broken ranks with Trump on a number of high-profile votes this year — rebuking the president on his signature border wall, backing Russia sanctions and voting with Democrats to end the historic 35-day government shutdown.
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Facing a changing state back home and a new era of divided government in Washington, the Oregon Republican has been joining with a handful of his more moderate GOP colleagues to quietly cross the aisle and vote with the Democratic majority. But Walden isn’t ostentatious about his splits with the president, and in the Trump-era, he can’t go rogue too frequently if he wants a future in the GOP.
The 62-year-old has his sights on reclaiming the Energy and Commerce gavel for another term should Republicans take back the House next year, and he’s not eager to hurt his chances of being elected chairman or serving elsewhere in leadership.
“I’m a chairman in exile, dude,” the mild-mannered Walden insisted in an interview with POLITICO. “I’ve got two more years as chairman — that’s my focus.”
Yet Walden needs to win reelection if he wants to still be around in the next Congress, which could grow more challenging in his sprawling, rural district in eastern and central Oregon.
“It sure as heck ain’t getting any redder,” Walden, a lifelong Oregonian whose ancestors came to the state by wagon train in 1845, said of his district — the only one held by a Republican in the state.
Walden does not appear to be in immediate danger. He won reelection by 17 points in November, a comfortable margin of victory in a bad year for the GOP yet far smaller than his past wins. Trump carried the district by 21 points in 2016.
Since arriving in Washington two decades ago, Walden — a former radio station owner with a booming voice — has earned a reputation for his loyalty to the party.
Walden helped lead the House GOP to back-to-back victories as chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee in 2014 and 2016. He also served as chairman of the Republican leadership under then-Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) in 2010. And at the request of GOP leaders, he even briefly gave up his coveted seat on Energy and Commerce for another member.
Walden also played a major role in trying to repeal Obamacare, which led to Democrats back home lining up to race against him in 2018.
So Walden‘s occasional resistance to Trump this year has surprised some congressional observers, sparking speculation that Walden might be heading for the exits or eyeing a lucrative post-Congressional career on K Street.
But Walden swatted down the idea he was considering leaving Congress to cash in or run for statewide office. He says there is simply far less pressure to toe the party line in the minority, which has given him more freedom to vote his district — and conscience.
“At the end of the day, we don’t own your voting card,” Walden said of party leaders. “And you need to vote your district, too.”
“I think what upsets leadership is when you surprise them and they don’t see it coming,” Walden added.
The Oregon Republican is well respected by his colleagues on both sides of the aisle, who describe him as both a savvy politician and serious legislator who likes to dig into the nitty-gritty policy details. They also think Walden is growing more comfortable with standing up to Trump as he picks and chooses his battles.
“He’s in a different role now as ranking member. He doesn’t have to be held hostage,” said Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), who also served with Walden’s late father in the state legislature. “He was on the partisan track and he was pretty good at it. He can be partisan when he wants to or thinks he needs to, but I do think that by nature, he is a little less hard-edged.”
Walden maintains that he hasn’t gotten any flak from GOP leadership for crossing party lines, but admits he did get “beat up from the base” back home for his votes on the border wall. Walden supported a resolution to kill the president’s national emergency declaration to build the wall and then voted to override Trump’s veto of the measure.
While he did fear a public lashing from the president, Walden also says the vote was a no-brainer for him, citing the dangerous precedent of allowing the president to circumvent Congress‘ power of the purse. And Walden pointed out that since there wasn’t enough support on Capitol Hill to ultimately overturn the veto, he had more leeway to cast his vote however he wanted.
“I’m sympathetic to what the president is trying to do” on border security, Walden said. “But… in my heart of hearts, I took an oath to uphold the Constitution.”
Walden parted with Republicans to back a series of spending bills to reopen the government during the painful, 35-day shutdown — another easy decision for Walden, who represents scores of federal employees who work for the Bureau of Land Management in his farm-heavy district.
The Oregon lawmaker also supported a resolution disapproving of the Trump administration’s decision to lift sanctions on three Russian companies and backed Democratic legislation to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act, which contained new gun provisions and transgender protections that repelled most Republicans.
“It may not be perfect… I know it’s a process,” Walden said. “I was willing to lean forward and vote for VAWA.”
At the same time, Walden has fallen in line on other big votes where some of his moderate colleagues broke ranks. He voted against landmark gun control legislation, a bill to close the gender wage gap and a resolution condemning the Trump administration for supporting a lawsuit gutting Obamacare.
But while Walden has voted with Trump 92 percent of the time overall, he has been in lockstep with Trump for only 59 percent of the time this year, according to FiveThirtyEight.
That could help build some good will with Democrats as Walden tries to tackle prescription drug pricing, one of his top priorities on the Energy and Commerce Committee, or, perhaps climate change.
Walden has has become more vocal about addressing climate change in recent years — another departure from Trump and the GOP — and says the parties can find common ground on the issue. He recently wrote an op-ed with Republican Reps. Fred Upton (Mich.) and John Shimkus (Ill.) outlining some of their ideas.
Still, Walden has also repeatedly criticized progressives’ Green New Deal and backs GOP calls to hold a vote on the plan in a bid to expose Democratic divisions.
“We fight where we have to fight. But we came here to work,” Walden said. “That‘s been my M.O.”