Regime change is coming to Oregon starting Tuesday night, regardless who wins or loses
The 2022 May 17 primary is the end of the beginning of a historically tumultuous year in state politics. Oregon next year will have a new governor, new leaders in the Legislature, at least two new members of Congress, a new labor commissioner and a revamped legislative line-up.
The biggest impact of the voting that ends at 8 p.m. Tuesday will be culling the bumper crop of candidates in 2022. The 19 Republicans and 15 Democrats running for the open governor's seat will be cut to one for each party.
The nine candidates running against Oregon U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden will shrink to one Republican. The 16 candidates running for the newly created 6th Congressional District centered around Salem will drop to two, one Democrat and one Republican. The eight Democrats competing for the 4th Congressional District seat of retiring U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Springfield, will be cut to one, who will face Alek Skarlatos of Roseburg, the lone Republican.
The packed primaries mean a fragmented spread of votes. Final results will also be delayed by over 50,000 defective ballots in Clackamas County that have to be duplicated by one Republican and one Democrat by hand. A new law requires any mailed ballot with a March 17 postmark be counted if it arrives at the county clerk's office by May 24.
More candidates, delays in ballot counts and the postmark law mean slower, later and less complete returns with votes spread out among more candidates. Partisan primaries do not have runoffs. The candidate that gets the most bubbles filled in next to their name goes to the November 8 election, even if it's an unusual plurality of the vote.
Jim Moore, outreach director for Tom McCall Center for Civic Engagement at Pacific University, said the Democratic race for governor comes down to two: former House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, and Treasurer Tobias Read, with 13 also-rans with small bits of the vote. But on the Republican side, the geographic and ideological splinters are far larger, with the winner going on to the general election with a likely vote total under 20%.
"It's very possible someone will win on the Republican side with 15 or 16 percent of vote," Moore said. "Then would come the arguing — did that person really win, do they really represent Republicans, is this really an endorsement that voters can rally around in the general election?"
Three congressional seats with heavily partisan voter registration advantages will pick a political longshot to run against veteran incumbents. U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Beaverton, in the 1st Congressional District, and U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Portland in the 3rd Congressional District, are in prohibitively Democratic-leaning territory. Freshman U.S. Rep. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario, will seek a second term to a district redrawn for 2022 to pack in as many GOP votes in eastern, central and southwestern Oregon as possible.
It would take a political earthquake for any of the trio to lose their primary.
But a seismic shift could be going on in the 5th Congressional District.
U.S. Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Canby, is trying to fight off a furious challenge by progressive attorney Jamie McLeod-Skinner of Terrebonne.
Despite Schrader voting against her resuming the speakership when Democrats took back control of the House in 2018, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has sought to shore-up Democratic incumbents, including Schrader.
Democrats hold a razor-thin 221-208 majority over Republicans in the U.S. House. All 435 seats — with districts redrawn for 2022 — are up for election in November. History points to Pelosi losing her position when the new Congress convenes in January. Only twice in the past century — 1934 and 2002 — has the party of a newly elected president been able to stave off a loss of House seats in the next midterm election.
Holding on to seats they already have is the core goal of Pelosi and national Democrats. Knocking off incumbents in primaries only increases the odds of a GOP takeover of the House. Schrader has emphasized what he says is his centrist approach that will appeal to voters in a district with the smallest Democratic edge in the state.
"We need to stop the bickering and get work done, like I've done," Schrader admonished McLeod-Skinner during their one debate.
Amy Walter, a Cook Political Report editor and frequent guest on MSNBC, wrote last week that Schrader was the prime example of the "electability" argument falling flat among voters.
Schrader has "gone out of his way to infuriate those on his left by publicly dissing Nancy Pelosi, comparing the 2021 impeachment of Donald Trump to a 'lynching' (for which he later apologized) and initially throwing cold water on the American Rescue Plan," Walter wrote.
Walter said the pitch by Schrader, and moderate incumbents in both parties, is not resonating with voters, especially in states like Oregon where primaries are closed to all but registered party members.
"In his ads, he argues that he 'knows how to win in this part of Oregon' and that he is the 'only Democratic who can win (this seat) in November,'" Walter wrote. "However, insiders, we talk to believe Schrader is in genuine danger of losing the primary."
National Democrats argue that primary elections won by a candidate to the left of the incumbent makes it more likely that Republicans can flip seats in swing seats like the 5th district.
But the same tilt away from the center is driving the GOP primaries in Oregon, with a core of party activists in the closed primaries pushing the populist tone and ideological litmus tests of former President Donald Trump. In November, all voters can cast ballots, creating a possible showdown in the 5th district between candidates with a wide gulf between worldviews and legislative priorities.
Another oddity of congressional races: Some candidates don't live in the district where they are running, and can't even vote for themselves. It's possible the 5th district general election could feature McLeod-Skinner and former Happy Valley Mayor Lori Chavez-DeRemer, both of whom live just outside the districts where they are running.
BOLI and an independent gov challenger
The only state or federal office that could be decided on Tuesday is the commissioner of the Bureau of Labor and Industries. As an officially non-partisan office, it's on every ballot in the state. A candidate who wins over 50% of the vote is elected with no November run-off.
That's what happened last in 2018, when Val Hoyle won 52% of the vote in a three-way race. She still had to wait more than seven months to take office. Hoyle had launched a bid for re-election when DeFazio decided not to run again for Congress. Hoyle switched to the Congress race, as a Democrat.
With no incumbent, the position widely known by its acronym as "the BOLI" has seven candidates. If none get more than half the vote, the top two will move on to the November election.
While the race for labor commissioner could end, the race for governor could get a radical restart after the primary.
A Republican hasn't won an election for governor since 1982, when Vic Atiyeh was re-elected. But since statehood in 1869, the 38 governors of Oregon have been either a Republican or Democrat, with one exception.
Julius Meier of the famed Meier & Frank department store in Portland was elected in 1930. Meier's close friend and former law partner, George W. Joseph, had won the Republican primary, running on a platform calling for public development of hydroelectric power. When Joseph died soon after the primary, Republican leaders named a replacement who opposed public hydroelectric power projects.
Meier launched a campaign, qualified for the ballot and won a four-way race with 54.5% of the vote. He didn't seek re-election.
No one had won election as an independent before and no one has since.
But former Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, is giving it a shot. Backed by $1.75 million in contributions from Nike CEO Phil Knight and additional millions from timber and construction companies, she's launched an effort to qualify for the November ballot as an unaffiliated candidate.
With over 1 million unaffiliated voters, Johnson is betting that the closed primaries on Tuesday will turn out a very liberal Democrat and very conservative Republican. Johnson served as a Democrat, but is the daughter of a Republican lawmaker and mayor of Redmond. Considered the most moderate (according to Republicans) or most conservative (according to Democrats) of the 18 Senate Democrats, she had a voting record that ranged from support for abortion rights to opposition to many gun control bills and a proposed carbon cap on emissions.
The League of Conservation Voters gave her a rating of 41%, low among Democrats. But the American Conservative Union rated her at 22%, showing its unhappiness with most of her stances.
Johnson has until the end of August to submit about 24,000 valid signatures to Secretary of State Shemia Fagan in order to get on the November ballot.
The Oregon Capital Bureau is a news partner of the Pamplin Media Group.
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