UPDATE (Wednesday, May 20, 6:56 a.m. PT) – Ted Wheeler’s lead in Portland’s mayoral race narrowed to 50.35% as of 4:35 a.m. Wednesday.
It’s still not clear if he’ll avoid a runoff: Wheeler needs to capture more than 50% of the vote to claim outright victory. As of Tuesday night, he had taken a big lead with 51.68% with more returns due. But that number decreased by Wednesday morning.
“It’s really too early to tell how things are going,” Wheeler, who had watched the election results at home, said Tuesday. “With 19 candidates in the race, one would expect there would be a runoff. It’s very humbling that at least we’re hovering over the 50 percent threshold.”
As an incumbent who picked up major labor and business endorsements early on, Wheeler was considered the clear frontrunner out of the 19 mayoral candidates appearing on the ballot.
But he did face challengers: Sarah Iannarone, a community organizer who also ran for mayor in 2016, was widely considered the most likely opponent to force a runoff due in part to her fundraising success with the city’s new publicly financed election program, where small-dollar donations are matched 6-1 by city money. And she’s campaigned aggressively against Wheeler, regularly drawing attention to the comparatively large checks he cashed from business interests.
Iannarone said she was feeling optimistic about the returns.
“We knew we had an uphill battle against an incumbent in the middle of a pandemic,” said Iannarone.
Iannarone had 22% of the vote in early returns. That’s a better showing than in 2016, when she took 12% of the vote to Wheeler’s 55%. Former Multnomah County Commissioner Jules Bailey, viewed at the time as Wheeler’s leading opponent, took 17%.
During that race, Wheeler, a former state treasurer and Multnomah County chair, had made fixing the city’s homelessness and affordable housing crisis central to his platform. This time around, Wheeler vowed to make homelessness the top priority of his administration if granted another term.
Four years into his administration, homelessness remains one of the most pressing issues the city faces. During his reelection bid, the mayor said it was an issue deeply in need of “committed leadership.” The city and its social problems, he has argued, need a leader who’s going to stick around, rather than continuing the string of one-term mayors who followed after former Mayor Vera Katz declined to run for reelection in 2004.
The message may have landed. The mayor appeared poised to receive half of the vote Tuesday night with relatively little campaigning, at least compared to his 2016 effort. Unlike last time, there had been no big ad buys and few fundraising emails.
Instead, some political analysts had viewed the mayor’s response to COVID-19 as replacing a traditional reelection campaign; the crisis allowed the mayor easy access to the spotlight and a chance to demonstrate decisive leadership. Some have applauded the mayor for his quick response to the pandemic, which entailed crafting an eviction moratorium and providing relief for small businesses and low-income Portlanders soon after the city began to shut down.
A victory Tuesday night would mean Wheeler could continue focusing on the city’s pandemic response without worrying about the possibility that he may not be sticking around to see it through.
Two other mayoral candidates launched significant campaigns: Community organizer Teressa Raiford and sustainability consultant Ozzie González.
In debates, Raiford, the founder of nonprofit Don’t Shoot Portland, which assists families impacted by gun violence, had called for more police accountability and critiqued the mayor for moving too slowly to implement changes within the police bureau. González, who runs a consulting company focused on sustainability, had pushed for a greener Portland, calling to phase out landfill waste and help businesses become carbon neutral. But neither candidate’s platform appeared to have caught the attention of a significant number of voters.
Neither Raiford nor González had more than 8% of the vote in preliminary returns.