New poll shows reasons for Republican optimism in Oregon legislative races

Democrats have controlled both the House and the Senate since 2013

By: - July 8, 2022 6:00 am

Republicans see opportunities to add to their ranks in the House and Senate. (Amanda Loman/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

Republicans haven’t controlled any branch of Oregon government since Barack Obama’s first campaign for president – but they’re bullish this year about their legislative chances.

An internal poll memo produced for the national Republican State Leadership Committee and shared with the Capital Chronicle suggests that Republicans have a “rare opportunity” to win in November, thanks to low opinions of President Joe Biden and Oregon’s Democratic leaders.

“Voters across Oregon have had enough and view Republican state legislators as the remedy to get the state out of a downward spiral and back on the right track,” committee spokesman Zach Kraft said in a statement.

All 60 House districts and 30 Senate districts are new this year following last year’s post-census legislative redistricting. Legislative Democrats controlled redistricting, and independent analyses like Dave’s Redistricting website suggest the new districts disproportionately benefit Democratic candidates. 

But polls, both the internal poll released by Republicans and earlier public surveys, show that a majority of Oregon voters aren’t pleased with the state’s direction. More than 57% of the 600 likely voters surveyed by national GOP polling firm Cygnal between June 28-30 said the state was on the wrong track. 

When asked about generic legislative candidates, nearly 35% said they would definitely vote for a Republican, and another 12% said they would probably vote for the Republican. The same numbers were 10.5% and 32% for Democrats, giving Republicans a nearly 5-point lead on generic legislative ballots. 

About 52% of respondents said they disapproved of the job legislative Democrats were doing, and 57% said government would work better with a more partisan balance.

“There’s definitely a path for Republicans to a majority, and I don’t think that path has been there for the last 20 years,” said Senate Minority Leader Tim Knopp, R-Bend. 

The Republican nominee for governor Christine Drazan had a 1-point lead over Democratic nominee Tina Kotek, with 32.4% of respondents saying they would vote for Drazan, 31.4% choosing Kotek and 24.4% opting for nonaffiliated candidate Betsy Johnson. Johnson released her own poll Wednesday that showed her in a neck-and-neck race with Kotek.

About 32% of the respondents were Republicans and 39% were Democrats – slightly lower than the parties’ vote share in the most recent midterm election, when Democrats made up 41% of the electorate and Republicans 33%. Nonaffiliated voters, the largest group in the state, have lower voting rates than those who choose a party, and they turn out at even lower rates in non-presidential elections. 

Cygnal has a B+ rating from FiveThirtyEight, a highly respected political website, which reports that the firm more frequently overestimates Democrats than Republicans. 

Democrats have controlled both chambers of the Legislature since 2007, except for a two-year period beginning in 2011 when the House was split 30-30. This year, Democrats hold 37 of 60 seats in the House and 18 of 30 in the Senate. 

‘Playing a rigged game’

Dru Draper, political director for the House Republicans’ Evergreen Oregon PAC, said almost 20 House districts are in play for Republicans in November. That includes former Democratic strongholds in Salem, Clackamas County and Hood River.

“The number of seats that we’re looking at is a lot bigger than it normally is because of how badly things are going,” he said. 

That’s despite structural advantages Democrats had going into the election because of their control over redistricting, he said.

“We’re kind of playing a rigged game because of what the Democrats did during redistricting, but a pissed-off electorate isn’t gonna let that get in the way,” Draper said. 

House Majority Leader Julie Fahey, D-Eugene, and Dan Torres, the director of the Democratic Caucus’s FuturePAC, were in meetings throughout the day Thursday and unavailable for interviews. Democratic candidates are running in 55 of the 60 House districts, and Fahey has previously praised this year’s slate of Democratic candidates for their enthusiasm and diversity. 

Republicans start from a stronger position in the Senate, where only 16 seats are on the ballot in the fall: 15 for four-year terms and one to finish the last two years of a term. Five of the senators who don’t have to run for re-election this year are Democrats, while eight are Republicans and one is an independent who previously ran as a Republican. 

That means Republicans only need to win seven races in November to tie the Senate and eight to win a majority. Knopp, the minority leader, said Republicans’ path to a majority runs through districts in Salem, Keizer, Medford, Hood River, Clackamas County and Lane County.

They’re defending three Republican-held seats in close districts now represented by Sens. Chuck Thomsen, R-Hood River; Bill Kennemer, R-Oregon City; and Kim Thatcher, R-Keizer. Kennemer and Thatcher are running for re-election against Democratic Gladstone Rep. Mark Meek and Keizer attorney Rich Walsh. Thomsen retires at the end of this year, and Rep. Daniel Bonham, R-The Dalles, is running in his stead. 

Republicans also have their eyes on the Salem-based 10th Senate District now represented by Democratic Sen. Deb Patterson. Rep. Raquel Moore-Green, R-Salem, is running against her.

Republicans also are competing in the 16th Senate District on the north coast, previously represented by unaffiliated gubernatorial candidate Betsy Johnson. Rep. Suzanne Weber, R-Tillamook, is running against Melissa Busch, a nurse from Warren. 

And Republicans hope Rep. Cedric Hayden, R-Roseburg, can pick up an open Senate seat in rural Lane County east of Eugene and that Medford Mayor Randy Sparacino can unseat Sen. Jeff Golden, D-Ashland.

Oliver Muggli, executive director of the Senate Democratic Leadership Fund, said Democrats are prepared for a tough November election because the party that controls the White House usually struggles in midterm elections. 

But he said Senate Democrats have the most qualified slate of candidates they’ve had in years. Along with defending current Democratic districts, they hope to unseat Thatcher and Kennemer. 

“Many of them have a real track record of success winning tough districts and are not shying away from getting out and talking to voters and putting in the legwork all the way through to win tough campaigns,” Muggli said.

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Julia Shumway
Julia Shumway

Julia Shumway has reported on government and politics in Iowa and Nebraska, spent time at the Bend Bulletin and most recently was a legislative reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times in Phoenix. An award-winning journalist, Julia most recently reported on the tangled efforts to audit the presidential results in Arizona.

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