3 Key Takeaways from an Unpredictable Primary Election Night in Oregon

Money isn't everything, incumbents hang on, and Oregon's year of the woman shapes up.

By Julia Silverman May 17, 2022

Some of the candidates who met their fate on primary night, including (top row, from left) AJ McCreary, Christine Drazan, Dan Ryan, Rene Gonzalez, Jo Ann Hardesty, (bottom row, from left) Jessica Vega-Pederson, Tina Kotek, Tobias Read, Vadim Mozyrsky, and Sharon Meieran.

Restive Oregon voters sent mixed messages across the political spectrum via early returns in Tuesday night’s primary—coming out strongly for progressive, left-of-center candidates in some races while tacking to the center in others. Here are three early takeaways from an unpredictable primary night in Oregon.

The Anti-Incumbent Wave that Wasn’t

In perhaps the most closely watched race of the night (in Portland proper, at least), Portland City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty held onto a lead for her seat, though she will have to face one of two centrist challenges in November, having failed to get a majority of voters. Political observers, noting the sour mood of so many of the city’s voters, had speculated that she might not even make the runoff. Still, there were some warning signs for Hardesty ahead—her two top challengers, who are ideologically fairly similar, together outpaced her vote totals, suggesting that she remains vulnerable, though the general election in November will attract a larger, more diverse pool of voters.

Meanwhile, her city council colleague Dan Ryan cruised to an easy victory over a challenger who was never able to gain much of a toehold in the race, despite running far to his left in ultra-progressive Portland. Ryan, elected in 2020 to complete the term of the late Nick Fish, won the right to serve a full term on the council, where he has been tasked with leading the city’s response to its growing houseless population. He has spearheaded the charge to open six “safe rest villages” which were supposed to be operational by the end of 2021; the first such village formally opened this month, while the rest remain in the planning stages.

In the race to be the next Multnomah County Chair, two current members of the county board of commissioners—Jessica Vega Pederson and Sharon Meieran—looked poised for a runoff, though an outsider challenger, local lawyer Sharia Mayfield, who had criticized the county’s current approach to homelessness services, was making a stronger-than-expected showing and outperforming a third member of the council, Lori Stegmann.

The Year of the Woman

Oregon’s congressional delegation has long been overwhelmingly male, with Democratic Rep. Suzanne Bonamici its sole female current member. But that could well change next year if early results bear out. One incumbent who did seem to be suffering some backlash was longtime Democratic Rep. Kurt Schrader, who was trailing his more liberal challenger, Jamie McLeod-Skinner, despite Schrader's having received an early endorsement from President Joe Biden. (Of note: Results from Clackamas County are delayed due to ballot printing snafus, and could reverse her lead. The bulk of the redrawn Fifth Congressional District’s voters live there, and it is Schrader’s home base. Still, as pollster John Horvick told KPTV on Tuesday night of Schrader’s race, “If an incumbent were to lose in the primary, that would be an earthquake for Oregon politics.”) Should McLeod-Skinner hold on to win in that race, look for national Republicans to spend big to try and win the seat in that swing district in the fall.

Whoever emerges may well face a female Republican challenger, given that former Happy Valley Mayor Lori Chavez-DeRemer was also leading in early returns in that primary, against Jimmy Crumpacker, who was making his second run at a congressional seat.

Meanwhile, in Oregon’s new Sixth Congressional District, despite millions poured into the race on behalf of newcomer Carrick Flynn via a billionaire donor who made his fortune in cryptocurrency, former State Rep. Andrea Salinas of Lake Oswego was leading the Democratic field. 

And in the race to replace retiring Peter DeFazio in the Fourth Congressional District, Democrats chose another female candidate, former Bureau of Labor and Industries head Val Hoyle, for a seat that has historically favored Democrats and got a little bluer after district lines were recently redrawn.

A three-way, all-female race could also be ahead to be Oregon’s next governor. Former House Speaker Tina Kotek, a Democrat, claimed victory in the primary early in the night by a decisive margin over her closest challenger, State Treasurer Tobias Read, while her archnemesis in the state house, Minority Leader Christine Drazan of Canby, was in front of a crowded Republican primary field. And though she was not on a primary ballot, Democrat turned independent Betsy Johnson, a former state senator from Scappoose, has been raising money hand over fist for her own gubernatorial run. 

Money Isn’t Everything

There were some big spenders in this primary—and outside groups spending big to influence the results—and it didn’t always pay off. Take Flynn, for example: His race was one of the most expensive in the country this primary season, given the massive checks written by cryptocurrency billionaire Sam Bankman-Fried, who liked his stance on pandemic preparedness. What Flynn lacked was the support of the Oregon political establishment, who came out strongly for Salinas.

Schrader, too, had far more cash on hand than McLeod-Skinner (and again, results in that race could still flip, given the lagging Clackamas County ballots), but she came up trumps with key on-the-ground support from local activists. There was also a big-money independent expenditure campaign made by real estate and business interests on behalf of one of Hardesty’s challengers, Vadim Mozyrsky, and yet in early returns he was trailing her other opponent, business owner Rene Gonzalez, albeit by the thinnest of margins.

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