In Republican-controlled Oregon House District 54, Democrats have a voter registration advantage, and it looked like Bend might swing blue Nov. 6.
But then, the left-leaning campaigns to replace state Rep. Knute Buehler went off the rails.
First, the candidate with the big "D" by his name was disowned by the party, then a third-party progressive to supplant him went down in flames.
All the while, the Republican in the race has run an issue-based campaign that appeals across party lines.
“Most people say they're bipartisan. I can show that I am,” said Republican candidate Cheri Helt, talking over the clanging of silverware at a restaurant she co-owns in Bend.
“It's funny, because to me this is a quiet space,” she laughed.
Helt has three kids, works nights in her family’s two restaurants and is on the Bend-La Pine school board, one of the fastest growing districts in the state.
“I've had the luxury of appointing four people to the school board: Two have been Democrats, and two have been Republicans,” she said.
Helt's voter records show she's also personally crossed party lines. She switched registration to the Democratic party in 2008, then back to Republican in 2013, and she said she's still not a straight-ticket voter.
“I did not vote for President Trump. And I am a Republican, but … I'm very independent-minded,” she said.
Helt's platform for higher office revolves around one goal: improve education in the state and fund schools first.
“We’re 48th in the nation for graduation rates and we have to stop accepting that,” she said. “We've got to get some money into our classrooms and we've got to get the right programs, as well. It’s not just about money. It’s about making sure that we have programs and options for kids that kids believe in.”
Helt applauded more career and technical education offerings. She's been a driving force behind school security measures taken in Bend-La Pine, as well.
Her chances of getting to Salem are good, even though there are more registered Democrats than Republicans in her district.
That's because Democratic candidate Nathan Boddie lost lots of support after allegations of offensive speech and sexual harassment surfaced against him over the summer.
The scandal alienated longtime Democrats like Anne Carwile of Bend.
“We want to elect a Democrat, but I can’t vote for him. So I’m just really up in the air about this,” she said.
Carwile voted for Boddie to serve on the Bend City Council, but she said she's not supporting him — not just because of an allegation he grabbed a colleague's butt six years ago, but also because of how he responded.
Boddie denied the claim, and said the woman who made it has substance abuse issues. The backlash to that reaction has been fierce in the Bend community, with some of Boddie’s colleagues on the City Council calling for his resignation, and other prominent Democrats across the state demanding he drop out of the race.
Still, some people are sticking with him.
“I plan on voting for Dr. Boddie. Absolutely,” said Andrea Emmert of Bend, a personal friend and campaign contributor. “I know the man that he is. I know he's trustworthy. He's a big supporter of women's rights, and he’s definitely interested in equality.”
Emmert was surprised by how Boddie reacted to the harassment allegation.
“I assumed Nathan would respond appropriately with the media and talk about it,” she said.
Four months since the allegations came to light, Boddie ignored at least half a dozen requests from OPB to address them, and he declined an interview to focus solely on the issues facing the district. Meanwhile, his campaign fundraising is next to nil.
After pulling their endorsement of Boddie, prominent Democrats such as Oregon Gov. Kate Brown and U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley quickly threw weight behind a third-party candidate, Amanda La Bell of the Working Families Party. But then, La Bell dropped out of the race amid allegations she lied in the voter pamphlet and mishandled funds for a nonprofit diaper bank she oversaw. Her name is still on the ballot.
Political scientist Judy Stiegler shook her head retelling these turns.
"I think they got hoodwinked," she said of the Democrats who endorsed La Bell. "I think everybody got hoodwinked on this."
Stiegler is a Democrat who used to represent Bend's district in the Legislature.
“This is where voters could just go, ‘Yeah, see? Look, politics!’ And throw their hands up, and walk away, and say, ‘It doesn't do us any good,’” Stiegler said.
She now teaches politics and government at Oregon State University-Cascades, and she worries the drama in this race will stoke cynicism about the democratic process.
“I tell my students: ‘You have to care, even in the middle of all this kind of stuff that comes down, you can’t just take the easy way out,’” Stiegler said.
She said the easy way out is pretending like your vote doesn’t matter.