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Oregon Legislative Races Could Determine Future Of Capitol Walkouts

M.O. Stevens

Democrats believe there's a chance a "blue wave" year could give them larger majorities in the House and Senate. But Republicans have plenty of opportunity to make up lost ground.

For Oregon’s legislative Republicans, the 2018 general election was a post-Halloween horror show.

Already in the minority that November, the GOP lost seats in both the state House of Representatives and Senate, giving Democrats the three-fifths supermajorities needed, in theory, to pass any bill on a party-line vote. The result was so deflating for the party that the then-House Republican leader likened his members to “ not even legislative speed bumps” beneath Democrats' treads.

But you can’t run over what’s not there.

In 2019 and again in 2020, Republicans walked away from the Capitol three times to slow or halt Democratic policies they disagreed with. The Democrats had the votes, but they didn’t have the quorum required to take them.

Those high-profile no-shows bring a unique dynamic to the legislative races playing out in Oregon this year. Can Republicans use a narrative of Democratic overreach on topics like climate change and taxation to win back the ground they gave up in 2018? Or will the toxicity of the presidential race spur another “blue wave” that can give Democrats the two-thirds majorities needed to render even a Republican walkout impotent?

Perhaps not surprisingly, leaders in both parties profess to love their chances.

“It’s a good offensive year,” said Rep. Christine Drazan, R-Canby, the House minority leader. “That map is hard for Democrats when you get to be so big. It’s almost like they are collapsing under their own weight.”

Not so, say top Democrats.

“I think it will be a blue wave year,” said Sen. Rob Wagner, D-Lake Oswego, the Senate majority leader.

Democrats currently hold 38 seats in the 60-member House, two members away from a 40-person threshold that would allow the party to conduct business whether Republicans bother to show up or not. In the state Senate, Democrats similarly hold an 18-12 advantage, two seats off from the 20-10 split that would neutralize the walkout threat.

Oregon’s legislative map is sparse by the standards of many states, which vote on more than 100 lawmakers each election. There are 76 seats up for election in the Beaver State this year, but even that number belies what’s truly at play.

Since most districts are nearly certain to vote either Republican or Democrat because of the way legislative lines are drawn, the power balance in the Capitol is going to come down to just three districts in the Senate, and perhaps as many as six in the House.

“We have two or three races every year that are going to be armageddon,” Wagner said of the Senate. “We know where our fight’s going to be.”

House Majority Leader Barbara Smith Warner, D-Portland, said recently her main goal is to retain all 38 seats her party currently holds.

“We’re defending our biggest majority if not ever, then in a really freaking long time,” she said.

Around the country this year, control of state legislatures has become a focus, as the parties jockey for control ahead of legislative redistricting. Oregon has seen less interest. After all, the key question is not whether Democrats will continue to hold both chambers, but by how much.

“It looks like the Republicans have a chance to nibble away at the supermajorities,” said Jim Moore, director of political outreach at Pacific University’s Tom McCall Center for Civic Engagement, who keeps a detailed spreadsheet of all 76 races. But Moore concedes: “The last several election cycles they’ve had a chance, but the Dems have won every damn race.”

Interest in both chambers this year centers partly on open coastal districts, where three Democratic incumbents are stepping down. Republicans see these seats — two in the House, one in the Senate — as prime pickup opportunities in districts that all voted for President Trump in 2016.

“The coast is a challenge,” said Smith Warner. “It has been for a couple cycles. It continues to be.”

She’s hoping to defend seats currently held by Coos Bay Rep. Caddy McKeown and Astoria Rep. Tiffiny Mitchell, who are not running for re-election. In the Senate, Democrats are hoping to maintain a south coast seat held by Sen. Arnie Roblan, who is also stepping down.

The races have emerged as some of the state’s most expensive and hard-fought.

In House District 32 on the north coast, Republican Suzanne Weber, the mayor of Tillamook, is vying against Democrat Debbie Boothe-Schmidt, a former trial assistant who owns an antique mall. They had reported raising more than $1.1 million as ballots went out in mid-October.

Farther south, retired educator Gerald “Boomer” Wright, a Republican, has dominated fundraising in the race to replace McKeown. Buoyed by large contributions from Republicans and industry groups, Wright has raised more than double the war chest of Democrat Cal Mukumoto, a timber consultant who has chaired the state’s Parks and Recreation Commission.

The race for Roblan’s Senate seat is between Democrat Melissa Cribbins, a Coos County Commissioner, and Republican Dick Anderson, the Lincoln City mayor who lost to Roblan by less than 350 votes in 2016. It’s another race that has generated more than $1 million dollars in contributions, though Anderson reported having far more cash on hand than Cribbins.

Each of the coastal races brings unique dynamics and has seen varying degrees of mud-slinging, but there’s a common thread. To make their case, Republicans are leaning on a message that electing a Democrat in these largely rural areas is tantamount to ceding absolute control to Portland. In ad after ad, Republican candidates conjure “extreme politicians in Portland” and “one-size fits all Portland policies” to make their case.

“How long are we going to accept failed leadership from urban politicians dictating what we do on the coast?” Anderson asks in one ad while leaning against a boarded-up storefront.

Drazan, the House Republican leader, says the messaging reflects the reality of Democratic control.

“When it comes right down to the voting record for Democrats in Salem and their rhetoric, they don’t push back against their constituencies in Portland,” she said. “I am doing my best to make the case that Republicans will bring balance to single-party control, stem to stern.”

Top Democrats counter that the ads highlight something else entirely: that Republicans don’t actually have policies to run on. They say the GOP is taking a page from the president’s re-election playbook in ads that highlight unrest in Portland as a sign of ineffective Democratic leadership.

“Those are Trumpian tactics,” said Smith Warner. “They’re doubling up on the Trump stuff because they don’t have anything to run on themselves.”

There’s plenty of reason for Democrats to want to tie their rivals to the president, who is largely unpopular in Oregon. While Drazan said in an interview that she thinks voters are more concerned with local issues than national politics when voting in legislative races, research suggests that is typically not the case. A president’s popularity — or lack thereof — often shapes how voters decide in down-ballot races.

Open coastal seats aren’t the only big prize on November 3. Democrats are also making a concerted effort to flip three seats currently held by Republicans — two on the Senate side, one in the House.

Some of the state’s most closely watched races are around Bend, an area that has routinely sent Republicans to Salem despite growing registration advantages for Democrats.

The best pick-up opportunity for Democrats lies in House District 54, which is currently held by freshman Rep. Cheri Helt, a Bend restaurateur and likely the House’s most moderate Republican.

The district has every appearance of an easy get. Registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans by 16 percentage points, and voters there overwhelmingly chose Hillary Clinton for president in 2016.

But Democrats have failed to capitalize. In 2018, the party’s nominee was marred by allegations of groping a young female colleague, and Democrats ultimately pulled their support. In 2016, incumbent Republican Rep. Knute Buehler held onto the seat, despite Clinton’s dominance.

Some Democrats privately joke that HD 54 is their “white whale.”

“That is a district that is ready to flip,” Smith Warner said. “Seriously.”

This year, deputy Deschutes County prosecutor Jason Kropf is challenging Helt in a race that has quickly emerged as the most bitter in the state. Helt has launched a series of attack ads accusing Kropf of being indifferent to child sex trafficking — a charge that Democrats argue is Helt’s way of appealing to fringe conservatives who buy into the QAnon conspiracy theory.

More recently, Helt accused Kropf of not supporting a former colleague who has formally complained about harassment in the Deschutes County District Attorney’s Office. Kropf has denied this, but the matter was muddied when a state attorneys association supporting him suggested that the female complainant might want to keep silent on the matter. Kropf has since returned a $10,000 donation from the group.

Those dynamics aside, Helt has a massive fundraising advantage, pulling in more than $880,000 this election cycle compared to around $380,000 Kropf had reported as of Oct. 16.

In another Bend-area race, incumbent Republican Sen. Tim Knopp is hoping to hold his seat against Democrat Eileen Kiely, a Navy veteran and retired financial manager for Daimler Trucks North America.

Knopp’s senate district is more moderate than Helt’s but still tilts Democrat — one likely reason the senator declined to participate in two out of three legislative walkouts by his party in recent years. Like Helt, the long-time politico has attracted massive fundraising support. He’s using it to fend off charges by Kiely that his conservative social views place him out of step with the electorate.

No race, however, has seen as much funding as Senate District 10, where incumbent Republican Sen. Denyc Boles is in a tough reelection fight.

A former state representative, Boles was appointed to Senate District 10 after the death of Sen. Jackie Winters in 2019. If elected, she’ll serve out the final two years of Winters' term.

But while Winters was a Salem institution, Boles is likely introducing herself to many voters in a district where registered Democrats hold a small lead. Challenging her is Deb Patterson, a Congregational minister with a background in health advocacy, who unsuccessfully ran against Winters in 2018.

The race was the most expensive on the legislative map as if mid-October, with both candidates raising upwards of $800,000. Democrats have been keen to lean on Boles' decision to walk away with other Republican senators earlier this year. Boles, meanwhile, has adopted the strategy of other Republican candidates, painting Patterson as “another loyal vote for Gov. Kate Brown” in attack ads.

While those six races appear to be the tightest, at least three other House seats could be tight, depending on which way the political winds blow.

Democratic Rep. Anna Williams of Hood River is defending her seat against Republican Jeff Helfrich. It’s a rematch of a 2018 race that Williams edged out with the help of big support by public-sector unions. She angered those supporters with a vote to tweak Oregon’s pension system, however, and Helfrich is mounting an energetic challenge in the formerly Republican district.

Meanwhile, Democrats are hoping to tar two additional House Republicans because of their decision to walk earlier this year.

In Salem, sitting Rep. Raquel Moore-Green is running her first race for House District 19, after being appointed to the position. She faces Salem City Councillor Jackie Leung, in a district with a Republican registration advantage.

In the greater Portland area, Republican Rep. Ron Noble of McMinnville is hoping his moderate record wins the day in a district where Democrats hold a slight advantage. He’s being challenged by Democrat Lynnette Shaw, a Carlton businesswoman who was recently dinged for overstating her academic record in the state voter’s pamphlet.

Copyright 2020 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Dirk VanderHart is JPR's Salem correspondent reporting from the Oregon State Capitol. His reporting is funded through a collaboration among public radio stations in Oregon and Washington that includes JPR.