7 Takeaways from Oregon’s Pandemic Primary

What to know about the biggest races

By Julia Silverman May 19, 2020

Optimism on display in North Portland before the May 19 primary election

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler might be in for a runoff, voters in the metro area gave the thumbs up to more support for homeless services, and state Sens. Mark Hass and Shemia Fagan were trading leads in the race to be the Democratic nominee for secretary of state.

One day after the ballot deadline, Wheeler was teetering just under 50 percent of the votes, the threshold to avoid a runoff with his highest-profile challenger, consultant Sarah Iannarone. (If elected, he would be the first Portland mayor to earn a second term in more than two decades. He’s the first since three-termer Vera Katz even to try.) Wheeler, who at times has appeared impatient with various Portland-area constituencies and stymied by seemingly intractable issues like the affordable housing crunch, has emerged as a steady presence during the coronavirus outbreak, even with the city facing a $75 million budget gap. 

Here’s a look at Election Day’s other big winners, losers, and too-close-to-callers. 

  • The state Senate is supposed to be a friendly chamber with less pugnacity than the larger and more unruly state House. But two of its members were locked in a tight race on Tuesday for the Democratic nomination for secretary of state, a high-profile job that includes oversight over elections, audits, and redistricting, and whose holder is first in line if the governor cannot complete their term. State Sen. Mark Hass (D-Beaverton) scored endorsements from business leaders and more moderate groups, while his colleague Sen. Shemia Fagan (D-East Portland), a late entrant into the race, got a big push from deep-pocketed public employee unions. Bottom line: A handful of votes can change the game.
  • Portland City Commissioner Chloe Eudaly had a reputation as a dragon-slayer in 2016 when she defeated incumbent Steve Novick. Fast-forward four years, and Eudaly is the incumbent defending a seat against many rivals. Conventional wisdom expected former Mayor Sam Adams to be her strongest challenger, but former political science professor Mingus Mapps racked up endorsements and turned it into a three-way race. On Tuesday night, all three were running neck and neck. (Things were also murky in the race to finish the city council term of the late Nick Fish, with five of the 18 candidates on the ballot pulling in between 10 and 20 percent of the vote so far.) Bottom line: Too close to call, all around.  
  • Eudaly aside, it was a good night to be an incumbent. Familiar faces were cruising to victory, with Democratic US Reps. Earl Blumenauer, Kurt Schrader, and Suzanne Bonamici easily advancing to the general election and Multnomah County Commissioner Sharon Meieran avoiding a runoff for the nonpartisan position. Bottom line: Incumbents FTW. 
  • If US Rep. Greg Walden had chosen to run again for his seat representing Oregon’s largest (by area) and most conservative 2nd congressional district, the Hood River Republican would have walked away with the race, another incumbent snoozefest. Walden’s decision to step down, though, created a rare opportunity for a new Republican from Oregon to win a seat on the federal stage. After giving Gov. Kate Brown a run for her money in the 2018 governor’s race, former state Rep. Knute Buehler looked like the candidate to beat, but the whole race was thrown off balance by the coronavirus pandemic, shifting the momentum away from town halls and retail politics and toward TV ads and social media campaigns. On Tuesday, former state Sen. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario, who was outspent by opponents, claimed victory in the race. Bottom line: A big loss for a doctor and his donors. 
  • In an election when Oregonians voted for a 77-year-old and a 73-year-old to go head to head in next November’s presidential race, we also saw a number of political newcomers win big, from Carmen Rubio, who will be the first Latinx person to serve on the Portland City Council, to Khanh Pham, an organizer with Opal Environmental Justice who beat out former Multnomah County Commissioner Jeff Cogen for to represent House District 46, where no Republican filed to run. Late-breaking celeb endorsements don’t hurt either; dreamy singer and half of Hollywood’s favorite power couple John Legend endorsed Mike Schmidt for Multnomah County District Attorney on Twitter this week; the reform-minded Schmidt wound up cruising to victory. Bottom line: In open seats, newcomers seized the day.
  • Metro-area voters continued to demonstrate their willingness to vote for social service taxes. Portland city voters reupped an existing gas tax to pay for road and sidewalk improvements, while voters in the metro area resoundingly approved a new tax on higher wage earners and business profits that will be targeted toward homeless services. Bottom line: Pandemic or no: Portland is still Portland.

Editor’s note: This story was updated May 20, 7 p.m, with the latest ballot counts.


Filed under
Show Comments