Do Recent Elections in Virginia, New Jersey Hold Clues for Oregon in 2022?

The three states are all recent Democratic strongholds with similar approaches to pandemic management.

By Julia Silverman November 17, 2021

Gov. Kate Brown and the Democrats have steered Oregon through the pandemic. But does the recent move toward the GOP in two East Coast states with similar profiles spell trouble ahead for them?

Oregon is 3,000 miles, give or take, from both Virginia and New Jersey—but the aftershocks from recent statewide elections in both of those East Coast states could well reverberate here in 2022.

All three have been relatively reliable Democratic strongholds in the last few presidential elections, and all three just had or will have gubernatorial elections on the ballot (open seats due to term limits in Oregon and Virginia; an incumbent in New Jersey).

And all three have had similar approaches to managing the pandemic, including vaccination mandates for state employees and widespread public school closures for more than a year—plus continued challenges at schools with quarantines and layers of safety protocols to implement, an issue that’s been singled out as alienating key parts of the Democratic base in both of the East Coast states.

Based on just that, Oregon Democrats should be sweating, since their party underperformed in both states; Republicans captured the governor’s seat in Virginia, while the Democratic incumbent barely held on in New Jersey.

Then add in that the party of the president typically loses ground in a midyear election, and things might get even dicier for Oregon Democrats, who’ve enjoyed a long run in almost complete power in Oregon, as well as the attendant baggage that comes from being in charge during a dismal pandemic when everyone with a Twitter account is an armchair quarterback.

“If you look at concerns about the economy and the direction of the country, all these things suggest that Democrats will have a difficult time if things hold true a year from now,” says John Horvick, director of political research for Portland polling firm DHM Research. 

Generally, the Portland metro area is a Democratic bulwark in Oregon, particularly as populous Washington County has trended ever bluer. But the Portland suburbs, home to plenty of college-educated families, were also the birthplace of resistance to school closures, a cause that’s now mushroomed into calls for a so-called “off-ramp” to in-school masking and, for some, resistance to vaccine mandates for public school kids. 

Alex Titus, a Republican activist who cohosts the Oregon Bridge podcast, says he thinks candidates from both sides of the aisle should be prepared to acknowledge and address the frustrations some Oregonians—like their counterparts in Virginia and New Jersey—are feeling about the state’s overall pandemic response and its effect on families, small businesses, and more.

“It’s underplayed just how upset people are with schools in general right now,” he says. “It’s a very important issue right now.”

Important, yes, but only for a relatively small slice of the electorate, says Horvick, who points out that before there can be a general election, there's a primary, in which voters tend to skew older and are less likely to have kids in school. His firm’s research suggests there is “issue crowd-out” for voter priorities, with crime, houselessness/affordable housing, general COVID-related concerns, and the economy at the top of the list for metro-area voters, pushing education further down the list. Horvick also notes that the West Coast and East Coast’s different brands of progressivism come into play—after all, California schools were locked down even longer than Oregon’s, and Gov. Gavin Newsom there easily survived a recall.

Given the nationalization of local politics—for proof, look no further than Virginia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe’s continued invocation of the spectre of former President Donald Trump—Ben Unger, a former state representative from Hillsboro and head of union-backed advocacy group Our Oregon, says the onus now is on Congressional Democrats and President Biden to clearly communicate the case for their reelection to voters.

“If we only say, 'We are not Trump,' that was good enough in 2020. But now, people need to say, ‘Here is what we are going to do for you,’” Unger says. “We have to implement the infrastructure package and remind people that we are doing it, remind people that we are serious about getting things done for working families.”

Titus, meanwhile, says he’d advise Oregon GOP candidates to emulate Virginia Governor-elect Glenn Youngkin and focus not just on dissatisfied suburban voters but also on picking off even more voters and boosting turnout even more in reliably red rural counties, which have chafed loudly under Oregon Democratic Gov. Kate Brown’s pandemic management.

“I am skeptical of the way Oregon always seems to miss the red tide,” Titus says. “If there is no funding and no backbone put into increasing the share of the rural vote, [Republicans are] not going to win.”

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