Incumbents—most of them Democrats, in keeping with Oregon's status as a deep blue state—looked to be having a good night as the first wave of election results came in on Tuesday evening, and Democrats jumped to an early lead in the crucial Secretary of State's race. But there was still some suspense in two regional U.S. congressional races and a handful of races in the Oregon Legislature that could have given Democrats a walkout-proof majority.
In the US Senate race, Jeff Merkley has not faced serious opposition since defeating Republican incumbent Gordon Smith back in 2008, and was handily re-elected on Tuesday. In his two terms in the Senate, he has emerged as one of the body’s more liberal members; he was an early endorser of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential bid back in 2016 and briefly considered making his own run for the presidency in this cycle. In the Senate, the Portland resident is known for championing filibuster reform, paid family leave and climate change legislation. He will be a ranking member of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee when the chamber returns to work.
His opponent, Jo-Rae Perkins, was a longshot candidate who raised almost no money for her bid and didn’t attract any appreciable support from national Republicans. She’s best-known, perhaps, for her support for Q-Anon, the far-right online group that has embraced various false conspiracy theories and that is gaining ground in the GOP.
In the US House, Oregon had perhaps its most high-profile race of the year, between Democratic incumbent Peter DeFazio, who heads the chamber’s influential transportation and infrastructure committee and Republican challenger Alek Skarlatos, best known for helping to foil a terrorist attack on a French train and later for his appearance on Dancing with the Stars. The two tangled over the chance to represent Oregon’s 4th congressional district, which includes Eugene and Corvallis, as well as more rural and conservative areas in southern and coastal Oregon. By 9:30 p.m. on Tuesday, it was clear that DeFazio was going to keep his seat, with 52 percent of the vote to Skarlatos's 45 percent, with more than 430,000 votes tallied.
Oregon’s other congressional races were more likely to maintain the status quo. Republican Cliff Bentz will succeed outgoing Republican Greg Walden in the state’s 2nd congressional district, which covers Bend, Medford and the rest of eastern and central Oregon; incumbent Democrats Earl Blumenauer of Portland, Suzanne Bonamici of Beaverton and Kurt Schrader of Clackamas all won reelection on Tuesday night.
(If the congressional races in the Portland metro area were predictable, it was another story just across the border in Southwest Washington, where Republican Jaime Herrera-Beutler was trying to fend off Democratic challenger Carolyn Long in a perennially purple district. Herrera-Beutler has positioned herself as a moderate, though she cast her vote for President Trump and supported his tax cut packages; Long says she’d be a vote for preservation of the Affordable Care Act and a public option for those who are not covered elsewhere. In keeping with the good-night-for-incumbents theme, Herrera-Beutler was winning in early returns, with 54 percent of the vote, with about 330,000 votes tallied.)
In other statewide races, Democratic incumbents Ellen Rosenbaum and Tobias Read, the state's Attorney General and Treasurer, were facing only nominal Republican opposition and easily clinched their races.
A more intriguing match-up came via the Democratic party's attempt to claw back the Secretary of State's office, after it went to a Republican in 2016. The contenders—Democrat Shemia Fagan and Republican Kim Thatcher—were both members of the Oregon State Senate, but that is largely where their similarities end. Fagan was declared the winner just before 9 p.m., with 52.8 percent of the vote to Thatcher's 41.2 percent, with 1.8 million votes in.
Fagan, who is from outer southeast Portland, is one of her parties’ more progressive voices, who got significant backing from public employee unions in her race. Thatcher, of Keizer, is considered quite conservative, and has the backing of the timber industry, among others. They have agreed, though, on the need for campaign finance reform, but different on voting issues, which fall under the purview of the Secretary of State’s office. For example, Fagan supported Oregon’s “motor voter” law, which automatically registers those who obtain a driver’s license; Thatcher voted against it. The Secretary of State is next in line to the governorship and oversees audits and holds a seat on the state Land Use Board.
Another area of intrigue Tuesday night: Could Democrats flip or hold onto enough seats in the Oregon House and Oregon Senate to defuse prospects for their Republican counterparts to walk out of the upcoming legislative session, denying them a quorum to vote on progressive goals? Republicans have memorably used this tactic in the last few years to fend off Democratic attempts to pass cap and trade legislation, an action that drew national scrutiny.
In the Oregon Senate, there are three key races to watch:
- Incumbent Republican State Sen. Denyc Boles versus challenger Deb Patterson. Patterson clung to a slim but steady lead as the night went on, with just over 50 percent of the vote, to Boles's 46 percent, with 78 percent of the vote counted.
- Incumbent Republican State Sen. Tim Knopp was trying to hold onto his Bend area seat in an increasingly Democratic area of the state, contested by Democrat Eileen Kiely. In one of the night's nailbiters, he was losing to Kiely, with 48.5 percent of the vote to her 51.3 percent, with more than 77 percent of the vote tallied, a result that remained close but stable as the night went on.
- Democrat Melissa Cribbins, a Coos County commissioner, was facing off against Lincoln City Mayor Dick Anderson for the State Senate seat being vacated by longtime Democratic incumbent Arnie Roblan. Early vote counts showed Anderson with a slim lead—a big win for the GOP if they can pick off this seat. With 75 percent of the vote in, Anderson had 34,560 votes to Cribbins's 33,774—votes from 15 precincts are still left to be counted.
Political observers are also keeping a close eye on the following seats in the Oregon House, where Democrats have an advantage, but not a walkout-proof majority. To get there, they need to pick up two more seats. Among the closest races of the night:
- Back to Bend, where Republican Rep. Cheri Helt was among the chamber’s most endangered incumbents. She’s being challenged by Democratic Deputy District Attorney Jason Kropf. Helt was losing by a wide margin on Tuesday night, with just 36 percent of the vote to Kropf's 62 percent, with 76 percent of the vote tallied.
- Hood River flips the narrative: Here, it is a Democratic incumbent, in this case Rep. Anna Williams, who was fending off a challenge from Jeff Helfrich, a Republican who is a former Portland police officer. Williams was ahead with 66 percent of the vote counted, 53 percent to 44 percent.
- Also keep an eye on the Oregon Coast, long a Democratic stronghold but trending more red in recent years, where Republican Suzanne Weber, the mayor of Tillamook, is locked in a tight race with Democrat Debbie Boothe-Schmidt, to replace retiring Democrat Tiffiny Mitchell of Astoria. As the night wore on, Weber started to pull ahead, with 53 percent of the vote to Boothe-Schmidt's 46 percent, with 73 percent of the vote tallied. Weber was helped by big margins in Tillamook County, which has been something of a bellwether in Oregon, having flipped for President Donald Trump in 2016, after voting for President Barack Obama in 2012.