Wild west may settle partisan power in Salem
In the battle for power in the Oregon Legislature, the future political mix could hinge on a handful of 2022 races not far from the Capitol.
After the 2020 election, Democrats had a 37-22 majority in the House and an 18-12 advantage in the Senate.
The three-fifths "supermajorities" let Democrats pass taxes and other financial legislation without any Republican votes. Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat, almost always signed bills that reached her desk.
Two years later, the political math in the Capitol is changing.
Brown will be gone next January — she's barred from running again because of state term limits.
The May primaries resulted in two antagonists winning the major party nominations: Former House Speaker Tina Kotek of Portland is the Democratic candidate. Former House Minority Leader Christine Drazan of Canby is the Republican. Add into the mix former Sen. Betsy Johnson, a longtime centrist Democrat from Scappoose, who resigned her seat to mount a non-affiliated campaign for the state's top job.
Redistricting required to rebalance the population and demographics of the 60 House and 30 Senate Districts was a bitter battle that ended with a Democratic-drawn political map for 2022.
Winners included the fast-growing suburban Portland areas and a new Democratic outpost east of the Cascades in Bend.
The new political landscape still has the most at stake on the west side of the mountains, with opportunities and trouble spots for both parties.
Bryan Iverson, a Prineville consultant for Republican legislative races, has spent a lot of time surveying the new political maps that came out of redistricting for the 2022 election. He has added insight and a personal stake in the outcome as the husband of House Minority Leader Vikki Breese-Iverson, R-Prineville.
Iverson said Republicans will push hard to win Democratic seats in Hood River, Ashland, around Astoria and the Portland suburbs. But the main event will be in some of the districts with the shortest commutes to the capital.
"The battle ground for both the Senate and the House is the Salem area — two Senate seats and four House seats," Iverson said.
Oliver Muggli, executive director of the Senate Democratic Leadership Fund, said the field of key races is wider and believes his party has done well with its nominees.
"We have one of the strongest batches of Democratic candidates in recent history," Muggli said.
After redistricting was approved for the 2022 election, both Democrats and Republicans could claim large swaths of Oregon as their unassailable turf.
Portland and Democratic strongholds in Eugene and Corvallis are longshots at best for Republican victories.
Rep. Andrea Valderrama, D-Portland, had no opposition in the May primary. Nor does she have a Republican opponent in November. Two other House seats in Portland will go to the winners of the Democratic primary since no GOP candidate filed to run.
With the exception of the Bend and Ashland areas, districts in the southwest and east of the Cascades are prohibitively Republican.
Freshman Rep. Boomer Wright, R-Coos Bay, flipped a Democratic seat in 2020. Two years later, he was unopposed in the Republican primary and has no Democratic opponent in November.
Two freshmen and a veteran also are alone on the November ballot: Rep. Christine Goodwin, R-Myrtle Creek, and Rep. Mark Owens, R-Crane.
Rep. Greg Smith, R-Heppner, dean of the House, is the solo choice this fall as well.
Rep. Bobby Levy, R-Echo, won 92% of the Republican primary vote, but has no Democratic challenger.
The voting outcomes in the contested new districts won't be known until after the Nov. 8 election.
But using Dave's Redistricting, a popular non-partisan website, it's possible to forecast the prospective political tilt of districts.
In the 30-seat Senate, lawmakers serve four-year terms. Senators elected in 2020 are allowed to finish their terms, but would run for re-election in new districts. There are 16 races on the 2022 ballot.
Dave's Redistricting rates three of the Oregon Senate races in 2022 as too close to call:
• Senate District 11: The scramble of districts has forced Sen. Kim Thatcher, R-Salem, to run in a district centered on the Salem area that leans Democratic. Woodburn Mayor Eric Swenson won a three-way Democratic race.
• Senate District 16: Rep. Suzanne Weber, R-Tillamook, will face Democrat Melissa Busch, a nurse and union activist. The most evenly partisan district in the state — which includes Columbia County — was long the seat of Johnson, the centrist Democrat running as an unaffiliated candidate for governor.
• Senate District 26: Rep. Daniel Bonham, R-The Dalles, another casualty of redistricting, is running for the Senate seat vacated by retiring Sen. Chuck Thomsen, R-Hood River. Bonham will have a tighter political squeeze, running in a district where there is only a slight Republican advantage. Democrat Raz Mason is a private security guard and longtime activist, who also lives in The Dalles.
In the 60-seat House, members face elections every two years. Every seat is on the 2022 ballot, using new districts.
Dave's Redistricting rates 35 Oregon House districts as strongly or likely Democratic wins. Republicans have 15 districts strongly tilted in their direction. Just 10 districts don't rate a Republican red or Democratic blue hue on the map.
Only one — House District 53 in Deschutes County — is east of the Cascades.
• House District 6: Rep. Kim Wallan, R-Medford, is seeking re-election to a rare southern Oregon district that — at least on paper — is in play for both parties. Democrat Dan Davis of Medford will try to flip the seat.
• House District 9: Boomer Wright, the freshman who won a formerly Democratic seat in Coos Bay, is unopposed, despite a statistically competitive district. As recently as 2018, Democrats held the House and Senate seat representing Coos Bay. But seeing the increasing support for former President Donald Trump, Democratic Sen. Arne Roblan and Rep. Caddy McKeown did not run for another term in 2020. Republicans took both seats that November.
• House District 12: The eastern Lane County district has Oakridge environmental advocate Michelle Emmons as the Democratic nominee. Charlie Conrad, an operations supervisor at the Lane County Events Center, from Dexter, eked out a 100-vote win in a four-candidate Republican race.
• House District 15: Taking in areas in and around Albany, it's the home base of Rep. Shelly Boshart Davis, R-Albany. Boshart Davis has been a key leader in Drazan's campaign for governor. She will face Democrat Benjamin Watts, also from Albany.
• House District 21: Covering areas around north Salem, the race features a return to the ballot for 2002 GOP governor nominee and former state party chair Kevin Mannix. He's up against Democrat Ramiro Navarro Jr., a veterans' advocate from Salem.
• House District 24: McMinnville is the hub for this Yamhill County district. Republican business owner Lucetta Elmer faces Democrat attorney Victoria Ernst. Rep. Ron Noble, R-McMinnville, opted to run in the GOP primary for the new 6th Congressional District, but finished second to Mike Erickson.
• House District 31: Taking in a suburban-rural mix primarily in Columbia and Yamhill counties, the race is one of the seats in the northwest corner of the state up for grabs. The Republican in the race is Brian Stout, a Columbia City businessman who narrowly lost two years ago to Rep. Brad Witt, R-Clatskanie. With redistricting adding more Republicans to the electoral mix, Witt decamped to the Salem area to run in the more Democratic-friendly House District 19. He finished third in the primary. Anthony Sorace, a Scappoose software engineer, will seek to keep Witt's old seat in the Democratic column.
• House District 32: The seat just to the west of House District 31 includes Astoria. Democrat Logan Laity, a Tillamook businessman and community activist, faces moderate Republican Cyrus Javadi, a Tillamook dentist. Javadi won the primary with a focus on local issues and saying he would prefer Trump not run for president in 2024. The seat was held by Weber, who is running for the Senate.
• House District 52: The Hood River area district has former Republican Rep. Jeffrey Helfrich seeking a return to the House. Democrat Darcy Long is a financial adviser and city council member in The Dalles. Incumbent Rep. Anna Williams, D-Hood River, was one of three Democratic women House members who opted out of 2022 races, saying the $33,000 salary was too low for the hours demanded by the position.
Democrats are confident in keeping the Hood River and Ashland seats, while expanding their territory west of the Cascades to include a constellation of districts in the Willamette Valley.
Iverson said he believes there are other possible pick-ups for Republicans in the area around the state capital, pointing to Rep. Raquel Moore-Green, R-Salem, who is running for Senate District 10 against Sen. Deb. Patterson, D-Salem.
Republicans also believe they can sweep the two House districts and one Senate district covering the area around Astoria and fanning out to the east and south.
"We feel great about the northwest coastal areas," Iverson said.
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