Image for Handful of Contested Races Attracts Mountains of Cash

In the 2020 general election, legislative Republicans want to erode Democratic supermajorities in the House and Senate. Legislative Democrats want to enlarge their House and Senate majorities so they have quorums without relying on any GOP member. Both sides are expressing optimism. Turnout will once again be the X-factor.

Democrats control the Senate 18-12 and the House 38-22. They need to pick up two seats in both chambers to have a quorum-proof majority. Democrats need to retain all 18 seats in the Senate and at least 36 House seats to preserve supermajorities that allow them to approve revenue measures without Republican votes.

House GOP Leader Christine Drazan, R-Canby, says it will be hard for Democrats to defend such a large majority. Senate Majority Leader Rob Wagner, D-Lake Oswego, predicts a “blue wave” of Democratic voters. Republicans are deploring Portland-dominated one-party control of state government. Democrats point out most Republicans staged multiple walkouts during legislative sessions to block climate change legislation. Both sides have raked in a lot of campaign cash.

Most legislative districts in Oregon are either safely Democratic or Republican turf. Election suspense centers on a handful of races in districts with retiring incumbents, appointed legislative replacements or areas with changing voter demographics.

The best example of the latter is House District 54 in Bend. The Republican incumbent is freshman Rep. Cheri Helt who won in 2018 after her Democratic opponent was politically wounded by a sexual harassment charge. Helt is a political moderate and was one of the Republicans who didn’t walk out in the special session earlier this year.

However, Democrats outnumber Republicans two to one in Helt’s district. Her Democratic challenger, Jason Kropf, a deputy district attorney, has raised $800,000 and may benefit from energized Democratic voters in a presidential election year.

Also in the Bend area, GOP Senator Tim Knopp has raised more than $1 million to defend his Senate District 27 seat against Eileen Kiely, a Navy veteran and retired Daimler Trucks executive who has collected $500,000 for her campaign. Democrats have a registration edge in Knopp’s district, though not as large as House District 54.

Republicans are trying to flip back House District 52 in Hood River, which Democratic Rep. Anna Williams captured in 2018, unseating Jeff Helfrich who was appointed to the formerly GOP seat. Helfrich is mounting a comeback candidacy in a race marked by a combined $800,000 in campaign spending.

Most legislative districts in Oregon are either safely Democratic or Republican turf. Election suspense centers on a handful of races in districts with retiring incumbents, appointed legislative replacements or areas with changing voter demographics.

The retirement of three Democratic incumbents on the Oregon Coast – Senator Arnie Roblan and Rep. Caddy McKeown, both from Coos Bay, and Rep. Tiffany Mitchell of Astoria – has created promising openings for Republicans in territory carried by President Trump in 2016. Republican candidates have tried to turn these races into referenda on “Portland politics”. Democratic leaders have countered with charges of “Trumpian tactics”.

Lincoln City Mayor Dick Anderson is hoping a 12 percent GOP voter registration advantage in Senate District 5 will help him defeat Coos County Commissioner Melissa Cribbins to replace Roblan. Anderson has raised $800,000 in his race, outpacing Cribbins who has collected $600,000. Both have run extensive TV ads.

The open North Coast House seat features Democrat Debbie Boothe-Schmidt and Republican Suzanne Weber, who have traded campaign barbs paralleling the presidential race. Weber accuses Boothe-Schmidt, who owns an antique mall in Astoria, of being a tool of Portland liberals who support defunding police. Boothe-Schmidt television ads claim Weber would support shaving $1 billion from state public school funding. Boothe-Schmidt has reported $455,000 in campaign contributions, though more than half are in non-cash donations. Weber has raised $400,000, of which $113,000 are non-cash donations.

Senator Denyc Boles, R-Salem, who was appointed last year to replace the late Senator Jackie Winters, faces a serious challenge from Deb Patterson, a pastor in her second bid for the seat. Patterson lost to Winters by 8 percentage points in 2018. Boles and Patterson both have raised $800,000, which has paid for some of this cycle’s most negative television advertising.

GOP Rep. Raquel Moore-Green, who was appointed to Boles’ House seat when she moved to the Senate, is facing a stiff challenge from Salem City Councilor Jackie Leung. Republicans hold the voter registration in House District 19.

There are always a few surprises. In 2018, Courtney Neron pulled an upset over GOP Rep. Rich Vial, after she was handed the nomination when the Democratic primary winner withdrew. Neron mounted an energetic, low-budget and under-the-radar campaign.

A possible upset-in-the-making could occur in House District 47 in East Portland where Democratic Rep. Diego Hernandez is seeking re-election to a third term, despite urging from House Speaker Tina Kotek that he resign because of allegations he sexually harassed seven women at the state Capitol. Hernandez is being challenged in the general election by community organizer Ashton Simpson of the Oregon Working Families Party.

If Simpson managed to win, he would be the first non-major-party candidate to win an Oregon legislative seat since Charles Hanlon, running as an independent in 1974, defeated incumbent Democratic Senate Majority Leader Bill Holmstrom, who was caught in a scandal.

Congressman Peter DeFazio, seeking his 18th term, is facing a stiffer-than-anticipated re-election bid from Alex Skarlatos, who vaulted to fame when he and his fellow soldiers thwarted a terrorist attempt on a French train. Skarlatos has received $3.9 million in campaign contributions in his bid to unseat DeFazio, who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

One mild surprise is in the 4th Congressional District where Peter DeFazio, who is seeking his 18th term in the US House, is facing an unexpectedly stiff re-election battle with Alex Skarlatos, a 28-year-old native of Roseburg who vaulted into fame by foiling a terrorist attack in France. Despite losing a previous bid for the Douglas County Commission, Skarlatos has raised $3.9 million in his bid to unseat DeFazio, who has collected $3.2 million. One national election observer has shifted the DeFazio-Skarlatos contest from “likely Democratic” to “lean Democratic”, referring to it as “competitive” and a “sleeper race”.

State Senator Cliff Bentz, who won a contentious GOP primary, is expected to coast to victory in the 2nd Congressional District seat vacated by retiring Congressman Greg Walden. The re-election bids of Senator Jeff Merkley and House members Suzanne Bonamici, Earl Blumenauer and Kurt Schrader, all Democrats, seem foregone conclusions. Democratic Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum and Treasurer Tobias Read also are expected to win new four-year terms. Democrat Shemia Fagan is predicted to ride the state’s Democratic voting edge to capture the open secretary of state position over fellow state Senator Kim Thatcher.

Turnout is often the difference in closely contested elections. The presidential campaign has energized Democrats, Republicans and Independents. As of Friday, 31 percent of Oregon registered voters had turned in their ballots. There is still a week before election day November 3. Unlike in a few other states, voting in Oregon so far has gone smoothly.