SALEM, Ore. (AP) — Democratic U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley will face off against Republican Jo Rae Perkins on November’s ballot in Oregon, with the incumbent a heavy favorite against an opponent with political views described by observers as “extreme.”
Political experts say that Perkins' belief in QAnon - a wide-ranging and baseless internet conspiracy theory - and “science denialism”, will likely clear the path for Merkley and possibly even polarize Oregon Republicans in an already blue state.
“You might say that Perkins is the apotheosis of where the GOP has been and appears to be heading organizationally as it reveals fractures and tensions within and appeals to an ever-increasing base through largely negativistic, rearguard and limiting policies -- rather than sweeping and forward-looking visions for change,” said Christopher McKnight Nichols, an associate professor at Oregon State University’s School of History, Philosophy, and Religion.
Merkley, one of the most liberal members of the Senate, is seeking his third term. The Democrat has been outspoken about topics surrounding climate change and recently criticized Trump for suggesting forest management is to be blamed for wildfires.
Merkley has created legislation that aims to eliminate carbon emissions by 2050. He has also proposed that federal aid be administered to states to recover from natural disasters such as wildfires, tornados and hurricanes.
When it comes to Medicare, Merkley said he wants to eventually extend it to cover all Americans. Merkley said he believes “that a secure retirement is a key pillar of the American dream,” and has pushed back against both Democrats and Republicans to Social Security and Medicare are not weakened.
Merkley is a member of the Appropriations Committee; the Environment and Public Works Committee; the Budget Committee; and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Perkins, a staunch supporter of President Donald Trump, ran for the Senate in 2014 and for the U.S. House in 2016 and 2018. She failed to win primary contests until this year when she won 49% of the Republican vote against three other challengers.
But what really garnered the attention on Election Day was a now-deleted video where Perkins made references to QAnon, including saying that she stood with “Q” and holding up a QAnon sticker.
QAnon is a conspiracy theory that claims a shadowy cabal of liberal elites who are Satan-worshipping pedophiles runs a global child sex-trafficking. Many supporters of the theory say President Donald Trump is waging a secret campaign against enemies in the “deep state.”
The day after Perkins’ video was posted, her campaign released a statement saying that she was not a follower of QAnon. Perkins said that she uses QAnon message boards as merely a “source of information" posting articles from various media outlets, tweets and unclassified government documents.
“Under the 1st Amendment I support the right for whoever the Q-Team or Qanon is to publish their views and opinions along with the articles from any other media source they so choose,” Perkins told The Associated Press. “End of story.”
Nichols said because Perkins' video that mentioned QAnon was posted on Election Day, it likely came as a surprise to some Republicans and had they known about her embracing the movement earlier on she may not have become the GOP's candidate.
“When you run these more extreme candidates within the two party mainstream system it necessarily divides,” Nichols said. “And it divides not in just the single race but also how people think of that party.”
Perkins is not the first politician to embrace QAnon.
Through the AP’s statehouse reporters, the nonprofit research group Media Matters for America and Democratic groups involved in state legislative races, the news cooperative identified about two dozen candidates in more than a dozen states who have expressed some level of support or interest in QAnon.
Trump himself has spoken favorably of QAnon’s followers but said he knows little about the movement.
Critics have said that QAnon is a dangerous and baseless conspiracy theory that has incited some people to violence.
While critics of QAnon describe the movement as baseless and dangerous, Nichols argued that Perkins “science denialism" may be more concerning, especially in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
When asked about social distancing Perkins said she does not believe social distancing to be “100% accurate.” In interviews with other media outlets Perkins said she does not believe in the science behind wearing a mask.
In a September article by Oregon Public Broadcasting, Perkins said she believes there's 80,000 deaths from the flu, referring to the upward spike of flu deaths in the 2017-18 flu season (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention later revised its estimate downward to 61,000 deaths).
“Did anybody say anything about it?” Perkins said. “Nobody said boo…And all of a sudden, we’re in an election year, (and people said) ‘Orange man bad. Shut down the economy. The economy is doing too good … We’ve got to do anything we can. We couldn’t stop him with Russia-gate, we couldn’t stop him with the impeachment.’”
In additions Perkins said that she believes the number of COVID-19 deaths are much less than the more than 200,000 reported.
Perkins, who has had a career as a real estate agent, personal banker, financial advisor and insurance agent, holds views that largely align with Trump's. She is in favor of expanding the U.S.-Mexico border wall, passing laws that limit or stops federal dollars to places that have declared “sanctuary status”, supports the Second Amendment and anti-abortion, receiving the endorsement of Oregon Right to Life PAC.