Democrats have spent much of the last decade running up the score on Republicans in the Oregon Legislature. This year, with plenty of money and political winds at their backs, the GOP is looking to make up lost ground.
Republicans appear certain to reclaim seats in the House and Senate, likely taking away the three-fifths supermajorities that allow Democrats to pass any policy – even new taxes – on a party-line vote. Persistent inflation, rising violent crime, homelessness, and an unpopular Democratic governor have some GOP operatives salivating at the long-shot possibility the party could assume control of a legislative chamber for the first time since 2006.
A competitive governor’s race doesn’t hurt. Republican Christine Drazan is running statistically even with Democrat Tina Kotek in many recent polls.
“It’s motivating Republican turnout,” said Senate Minority Leader Tim Knopp, R-Bend, who is guiding his party’s strategy in Senate races. “Someone voting for Drazan is voting for our candidates.”
Democrats, meanwhile, are playing defense. The party hopes the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision reversing Roe v. Wade will energize its voters. But even that is unlikely to counteract the challenge facing the party nationally. Midterm elections are rarely kind to those in power, and Democrats hold both chambers of Congress and the presidency.
“The pendulum swings; we’re all aware of that,” said Senate Majority Leader Rob Wagner, D-Lake Oswego, who is guiding Democratic strategy in his chamber. “It’s a headwinds year, so people are working even harder.”
One other thing working against Democrats: Money. Republicans have assistance this year from former Oregon U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, who has proven a potent fundraiser. A political action committee affiliated with Walden, the Bring Balance to Salem PAC, has raised more than $4 million to elect Republicans to the state Legislature. That includes $2 million from Nike co-founder Phil Knight, who has taken unprecedented interest this year in beating back Democratic control in the state.
“The House and Senate Republicans are working together, and I think former Congressman Walden has played a big role in bringing that all together,” said Knopp. “He’s helped with momentum and connections.”
The Oregon Senate
The stakes are especially high in the Senate, where Democrats hold an 18-11-1 majority. (Sen. Brian Boquist, a former Republican, left the party last year to become a member of the Independent Party of Oregon.) Republicans need to flip three seats in order to eliminate Democrats’ majority. With Boquist’s help, the GOP could take control of the chamber if it overperforms in two safely Democratic districts where it’s spending heavily.
Some races to watch on Election Night:
Senate District 3 –Ashland/Medford
Sen. Jeff Golden, D-Ashland, is hoping to hold off a challenge from Randy Sparacino, the Republican mayor and former police chief, of Medford.
Both men are well known in the district, supporters say, but the metrics favor Golden. President Joe Biden won the district by nearly 15 percentage points, and Democrats have a nearly 8% advantage in voter registration. That’s not enough to deter Republicans, who have poured money into the race. Sparacino has raised more than $1 million. Golden, a supporter of campaign finance reform who declines large PAC donations, has raised a little more than $200,000. (Democrats have also assisted Golden via more than $60,000 in “independent expenditures” that are not affiliated with his campaign.)
Wagner, the Senate majority leader, says the Republican push won’t work.
“I think that race is going to be decided for Jeff Golden at about 8:15 p.m.” on Election Night, Wagner said, suggesting the result would be clear right after the ballot deadline.
Senate District 10 – Salem/Monmouth
One of several closely watched races in Salem this year, this district comprises a piece of the city and its southwest suburbs. It also plays host to the most expensive contest on the legislative map.
State Sen. Deb Patterson flipped the district for Democrats in 2020, in a race to fill out the term of deceased Republican state Sen. Jackie Winters. Patterson now faces state Rep. Raquel Moore-Green, R-Salem, a capable fundraiser who has amassed more than $1.7 million to Patterson’s nearly $1 million. Democrats hold a built-in demographic advantage in the district, which Biden won by more than 16%, but this race is expected to be tight.
Senate District 11 – Salem/Keizer/Woodburn
The other major Salem Senate race is a fight to replace state Sen. Peter Courtney, a Democrat and the longest-serving lawmaker in state history.
The race saw an early shakeup when the original Democratic nominee, Woodburn Mayor Eric Swenson, unexpectedly dropped out. It’s now a contest between Democrat Rich Walsh, a lawyer and former Keizer city councilman, and state Sen. Kim Thatcher, R-Keizer, a Republican whose home was drawn into the district during last year’s redistricting process.
The race is another costly one, with Thatcher raising more than $1 million – well more than Walsh. Democrats hold a slight edge, but it might not prove enough in a year that favors Republicans.
“We feel solid with Thatcher winning there,” said GOP strategist Bryan Iverson, who is helping run Republican Senate races this year.
Senate District 20 – Oregon City/Happy Valley
In a largely defensive year for Democrats, the party sees a rare opportunity to flip a seat in this suburban Portland district. The lines of Senate District 20 shifted dramatically through redistricting, roping in more of Happy Valley and ditching large swaths of nearby rural communities. The new boundaries give Democrats an edge. Biden won the district by nearly 15 percentage points and the party holds a 10% registration advantage.
But incumbent Sen. Bill Kennemer, R-Oregon City, is not conceding. He’s locked in a tight battle with state Rep. Mark Meek, D-Oregon City. Both men have raised hefty sums and are attempting to poke holes in the other’s record in ways that are common throughout legislative contests. Kennemer says the Democrat is weak on crime (and has gotten backlash from some crime victims for his ads), and Meek says the Republican is an anti-abortion extremist.
The bottom line: Republicans already have a fair chance of flipping a coastal Democratic seat once held by former state Sen. Betsy Johnson. If Republicans are successful in all four of the races above, they can win a majority in the Senate (assuming Boquist, the Independent and former Republican, goes along with the GOP agenda when lawmakers return to Salem next year). Even if they don’t win all four, Republicans have a good chance of cutting into Democrats’ majority, preventing the party from passing new taxes on its own.
And if this year turns out to be an extremely good one for Republicans, it’s possible the party could take a 17-13 lead in the chamber. To that end, the GOP is mounting a well-funded challenge to state Sen. Janeen Sollman, D-Hillsboro, in a suburban district that trends very blue.
“Any Portland suburb doesn’t want to be Portland,” said Knopp, the Senate Republican leader. “Oregon City, Gladstone, Hillsboro … None of those places want to become Portland so voters are looking at who has caused the problem and who they trust to fix it.”
The Oregon House
Democrats hold a 37-23 edge in the House, and the GOP’s chances of regaining control in the chamber are far more remote. That doesn’t mean things couldn’t get interesting.
Democrats are trying to avoid a repeat of 2010, the last time the nation saw a Democratic president midway through his first term. The party gave up six seats in the Oregon House that year, leading to a 30-30 tie. While such a steep loss looks unlikely this year, Democrats are planning on giving up ground.
Democrat-controlled seats in Columbia County and near Eugene are likely to flip after last year’s redistricting. The GOP is using its momentum and excess cash to go after plenty more.
Some races to watch on Election Night:
House District 19 – Salem
This district is currently held by Republican state Rep. Raquel Moore-Green, who is running for the Senate. Following substantial changes during redistricting, it amounts to Democrats’ best chance to flip a House seat this year. Biden carried the district in 2020 by more than 16 percentage points.
The race pits two former Salem City Council members against each other: Democrat Tom Andersen, an attorney, and Republican T.J. Sullivan, an insurance broker.
House District 21 – Salem/Keizer
Democrats hold a demographic edge, but Republicans like their chances of flipping this district stretching north from Salem.
An open seat, the race features Democrat and veteran Ramiro Navarro against Republican Kevin Mannix, an attorney and former longtime member of the state House who served as the GOP’s 2002 nominee for governor. Mannix has raised far more money than Navarro, and Republicans believe the name recognition he’s won over decades in politics will help him prevail.
House District 52 – Hood River/The Dalles
This district has proven extremely competitive in the past. Democrats eked out a win by just 84 votes in 2020. As with all House races, though, redrawn political maps have brought change. House District 52 now swoops farther east to encompass The Dalles.
Democrats still hold an edge – Biden carried the district by almost 8 percentage points – but the race has no incumbent and Republican Jeff Helfrich, the former police officer on the receiving end of that 84-vote loss two years ago, is winning the money race. He could be a formidable opponent for Democrat Darcy Long, an investment advisor and city councilwoman from The Dalles.
House District 53 – Bend/Redmond
Central Oregon has grown faster than any area in the state, and with that swelling population Democrats have seen their prospects improve in and around Bend. House District 53 used to completely surround the city without touching it, and has been reliably Republican.
Now the district includes northwest Bend, and is far more friendly to Democrats. The question seems to be whether they flip the seat this year or some time in the future. This race features Republican businessman Michael Sipe versus Democrat Emerson Levy, an attorney. Despite holding an advantage in the district, Democrats appear to be shoring up their defenses in other areas rather than making a major play to claim the seat. Sipe has raised far more money than Levy.
The bottom line: With 60 House races in play this year, there are any number to look to for action. Republicans are also making plays for Democratic districts in Woodburn, Oregon City, Springfield and Troutdale. But it will have to be a truly terrible year for Democrats for the GOP to claim enough seats to win even a piece of the House majority. Democrats feel confident they will enter 2023 still in power – by how much isn’t clear.
OPB reporter Lauren Dake contributed to this story.