Politics

Oregon’s legislative power dynamics hold steady, as political landscape shifts

By Dirk VanderHart (OPB)
Nov. 4, 2020 9:35 p.m. Updated: Nov. 4, 2020 11:31 p.m.

Republicans gained ground in the state House for the first time in a decade, but Democrats still hold supermajorities in both chambers.

A flurry of Oregon House and Senate seats will change party control next year, after an election where Democrats and Republicans picked off some of their top targets.

Related: OPB’s 2020 election coverage, ballot guide and results.

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But little is likely to functionally change in the Capitol.

The Oregon Capitol in Salem, Ore., Thursday, Sept. 26, 2019.

The Oregon Capitol in Salem, Ore., Thursday, Sept. 26, 2019.

Bradley Parks | OPB

As of Wednesday morning, results suggested Democrats would keep their supermajorities in both chambers, despite losing a seat in the House. That power balance — Democrats up 18-12 in the Senate and 37-23 in the House — theoretically allows the party to pass any bill on a party-line vote, but it’s not enough to override walkouts Republicans have repeatedly staged in recent years.

The result was heartening for Republicans, who worried they might be overrun in a state where President Donald Trump is deeply unpopular. Instead, the party gained ground in the House for the first time in a decade, and the Senate GOP won in two highly competitive races.

“Oregonians decided to make progress toward having more balance,” said Christine Drazan, R-Canby, the House minority leader. “I don’t think that the supermajority single-party control in our state has been healthy.”

Democrats, who’d dreamt of further expanding control, focused Wednesday on their existing dominance.

“Voters across Oregon sent a strong message that they trust Democrats and Democratic values to lead the recovery effort,” House Majority Leader Barbara Smith Warner, D-Portland, said in a statement. “We are ready to put this divisive election behind us and get to work so we can build back better.”

But while the dynamics around the statehouse haven’t changed, Oregon’s political landscape has. Republicans saw steady gains they’ve amassed on the Oregon Coast pay off, while Democrats were able to leverage demographic changes in the mid-Willamette Valley and Central Oregon for wins of their own.

The most pronounced shift occurred on the coast, where Republican candidates hammered a message that Democrats are complicit for months of unrest in Portland. The GOP is poised to take three open seats all currently held by departing Democrats.

On the House side, Republican Gerald “Boomer” Wright, a retired educator, defeated Democrat Cal Mukumoto for House District 9, on the south coast. That had appeared likely, as Wright outspent Mukumoto by a large margin in the Republican-leaning district.

More surprising was Tillamook Mayor Suzanne Weber’s victory in House District 32, on the north coast. Weber, a Republican, defeated Democrat Debbie Boothe-Schmidt in a race that saw the candidates spend more than $2.5 million combined — likely the most expensive state House race in Oregon history. The district has a 5-point Democratic registration advantage, and Weber’s victory marks the first time a Republican has won there since 2000.

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Republicans also appear likely to pick up a coastal Senate seat, Senate District 5. Lincoln City Mayor Dick Anderson led Democratic Coos County Commissioner Melissa Cribbins by nearly 3 points, as late returns broke his way. The district leans Democrat in registrations but has grown tougher for Democrats in recent years. Sitting Democratic Sen. Arnie Roblan, who did not run for reelection, narrowly survived a challenge from Anderson four years ago.

Cribbins said on social media Tuesday night that the race was too close to call, though Democrats privately acknowledged Wednesday it was likely Anderson would hold on.

But Democrats won ground too.

In Bend, Jason Kropf, an assistant Deschutes County prosecutor, handily beat Republican state Rep. Cheri Helt in a widely anticipated result. Democrats hold a 16-point registration advantage in the district and had long viewed the seat as a likely flip. Helt, a restaurateur and the most moderate Republican in the House, trailed Kropf by roughly 21 points in late returns.

“Obviously, I’m disappointed by the outcome and what it says about the polarized and partisan nature of our politics, nationally and here in Oregon,” Helt wrote on Facebook. “As a community, it is now time to unite around our humanity and shared values.”

For his part, Kropf thanked Helt “for a hard-fought campaign and for her years of public service.”

In the Senate, Democrats appeared to leverage a voter registration edge in the Salem area to pick off Republican Sen. Denyc Boles, who they attacked for participating in a Republican walkout earlier this year. In late returns, Democrat Deb Patterson, a congregational minister with a background in health advocacy, led by more than 3 points.

Though the race had been called by at least one outlet, Patterson did not claim victory Wednesday morning, posting on Facebook that she “would like to stay true to the democratic process and recognize that there are still a number of votes that have not been counted.”

If results hold, Patterson will serve out the final two years of a term initially won by the late Sen. Jackie Winters. The race was the Senate’s most expensive, with the candidates spending more than $2.6 million combined.

While nearly every hotly contested seat changed party hands, one appeared poised to buck the trend. As of early Wednesday morning, state Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, held a slight lead over his Democratic challenger, Eileen Kiely. As was the case with many tight races, Knopp appeared to benefit from late votes breaking his way.

“As many expected, we find ourselves in an incredibly close race for Senate District 27,” Knopp said in a statement. “Regardless of the outcome of this election, we will respect the results. Eileen Kiely has proven herself to be a tough competitor.”

Republicans appeared certain Knopp would hold on, while Democrats said they were still monitoring the race.

In another close contest, Rep. Brad Witt, D-Clatskanie, led Republican challenger Brian Stout by fewer than 500 votes. Witt’s district northwest of Portland, voted for Trump by more than 3 percentage points in 2016. Democrats said Wednesday they were confident Witt would win reelection. Drazan said her party was looking closely at the results, and would consider scrutinizing disqualified ballots if the lead narrowed further.

“My understanding is there are enough uncounted votes for that race to tighten,” she said.

This is a link to OPB's election coverage, ballot guide and results.
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