Oregon Republicans see legislative gains, but not as significant as they hoped
Oregon Republicans fell short of a lofty goal for winning parity — or even an outright majority — in the state Senate on election night, dashing hopes the party could ride voter disaffection to greater influence in Salem.
The picture looked similar in the state House of Representatives, where Democrats appear likely to retain a larger majority than observers in both parties expected prior to Tuesday.
Many races still remained tight Thursday morning, but if the results hold, they would amount to a disappointment for GOP leaders, in a year when they enjoyed unprecedented funding and believed political winds were in their favor.
“Our polling showed things better than what they were,” said Dru Draper, who managed campaigns for House Republicans this year. “I don’t know what to attribute that to yet.”
Combined with Democrat Tina Kotek’s apparent if unofficial victory in a tight governor’s race, the legislative results leave power dynamics little changed in Salem. Democrats have held near-total control of the statehouse since 2013.
Republicans also now have fewer options for waylaying bills party members dislike. Oregon voters on Tuesday overwhelmingly passed Measure 113, which will create steep political penalties for lawmakers who walk away from the Capitol to block votes, as Republicans did in 2019 and 2020. Under the measure, any legislator with 10 or more unexcused absences in a legislative session is barred from running for re-election or seeking office in the other chamber.
The measure makes it far more painful for Republicans to deny Democrats the two-thirds quorum required to conduct business in either chamber. Republicans have argued that fleeing the Capitol to deny quorum is a legitimate political tool. But the party failed to mount any opposition to Measure 113, and voters were overwhelmingly persuaded by the measures’ sales pitch: that politicians who don’t show up to work should be fired.
One bright spot for Republicans this year: They will eliminate a three-fifths supermajority in the Senate that allows Democrats to pass any bill along party lines, and will likely do the same in the House.
But that outcome is also a high point for Democrats, who wondered whether a red wave might sideline their political agenda for the next two years. Senate Democratic Leader Rob Wagner, D-Lake Oswego, was in high spirits Wednesday morning, as he attended a breakfast with other Democrats.
“The goal in a really tough cycle was to make sure that we had the majority,” said Wagner, frequently pausing a phone conversation to congratulate fellow candidates. “I’m proud of the work that we do.”
Senate Republicans this year aggressively targeted races in Democratic-leaning districts, expecting the political tides to help them win in places that many years would be out of the question. They were aided by former U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, who created a political action committee that attracted millions of dollars to assist legislative Republicans. Nike co-founder Phil Knight donated $2 million to the cause, along with spending at least $5.25 million opposing Democrats in the governor’s race.
But Democrats proved resilient. Incumbents in Ashland and Hillsboro fended off challenges, and the party held on to a hotly contested seat in Salem, where Sen. Deb Patterson won re-election in one of the most expensive legislative races in state history.
Republicans were able to pick up two Senate seats, one in Salem and another on the north coast. They were hopeful that late returns would break their way in a tight race in Oregon City, where Democratic state Rep. Mark Meek had a lead of about 300 votes over incumbent Republican Sen. Bill Kennemer as of Thursday morning.
Depending on the outcome of that race, Democrats are likely to retain a majority with either 17 or 16 of the Senate’s 30 seats.
“Yesterday voters rejected a right-wing attempt to buy our democracy,” said Oliver Muggli, who helped manage races for Senate Democrats this year. “Senate Democratic candidates won these tough races with focus, hard work, and commitment to represent Oregon’s best values.”
In the House, Republicans appeared on track to win two additional seats — enough to eliminate the Democratic supermajority. If that trend holds, though, the 35-25 Democratic advantage would be a far less dramatic result than GOP consultants had hoped for.
The party had some of its greatest success in northern Marion County. Republican Tracy Cramer appeared on track to beat Democrat Anthony Medina in a Woodburn district where Democrats hold a strong advantage. And longtime GOP politico Kevin Mannix, a former state representative and one-time Republican gubernatorial nominee, was on track to win a seat in extending from Salem to Keizer.
Republicans also held a narrow lead in a Hood River district that has often had razor-thin margins. Republican Jeff Helfrich was leading by about 800 votes as of Thursday morning. He lost a race for the district by 84 votes in 2020, though political boundaries have since changed.
But Democrats saw success, too. Attorney Emerson Levy appeared poised to flip a central Oregon district extending from Bend to Redmond that Republicans had long controlled. And the party looked certain to snatch a Salem district formerly held by the GOP.
The ultimate outcome of especially close races might not be known for several days. Under a new Oregon law, mailed ballots will be accepted up to a week after Election Day if they are postmarked by Nov. 8.
Copyright 2022 Oregon Public Broadcasting.