Democrats win top races in Oregon, but Republicans do, too

The U.S. has relatively few really strongly competitive U.S. House districts, but Oregon now has at least two of them, in districts 5 and 6

November 15, 2022 5:30 am

A sign on a desk in the House Chamber at the Oregon State Capitol on Monday, Sept. 20, 2021. (Amanda Loman/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

When our weekly coffee group reviewed this month’s election, the question arose: Is Oregon moving from the status of a blue state to a purple state?

The idea emerged from some Republican successes, or near wins, in the general election, notably the Republican win in U.S. House District 5 and close calls in the governorship and U.S. House district 6, plus Republican legislative pickups. 

My answer was that Oregon doesn’t seem to be changing much at all, but the evidence of this election confirms it as an only slightly blue state – that is, Democratic-tilting. 

Oregon for some years has looked bluer than it is because of so many narrow Democratic wins and because the genuinely deep-blue Portland area dominates so much of the state’s political attention. Oregon long has had slimmer margins between the parties than many other states, red and blue. 

You can see it in the governor’s race, of course, which was close and may have been closer in the weeks before the election. In the final stages, much depended on nonaffiliated Betsy Johnson’s level of support, once more formidable, deflated. Had her former supporters peeled off in different times and amounts to support Democrat Tina Kotek or Republican Christine Drazan, the general election result might have been different. 

Nor is this unusual: None of the Democrats who have won the governorship in Oregon have topped 52% of the vote since 1998, the last time Oregon had a landslide gubernatorial election. 

Compare that with this month’s general election wins in California of Democrat Gavin Newsom at 58% or Idaho Republican Gov. Brad Little at 60.5%, states where the winning candidates of those parties usually rack up numbers even higher.

Or compare the re-election of Oregon’s long-time congressional delegation leader, Ron Wyden, at 56%, with that of, say, Idaho’s Republican counterpart Mike Crapo, re-elected with 60.6%. 

The U.S. has relatively few really strongly competitive U.S. House districts, but on the evidence of this election Oregon now has at least two of them, in districts 5 and 6.

In many states, one party or the other has had true supermajority – that is, two to one – control in their state legislature; such levels have been typical for Democrats in California and Republicans in Idaho for many years. In Oregon, that would mean 20 senators and 40 House members of the same party; in fact, neither party has hit those numbers in either chamber since Republicans held 20 Senate seats after the 1996 election. Republicans have not controlled either legislative chamber since 2006, but they have often come close. In 2010, they did manage a tie in the state House. 

This year’s election underscores just how close the state runs in partisan contests. The question of who would control each chamber was in serious question this year because enough legislative elections were decided within a percentage point or two. In House District 40, for example, Democrat Annessa Hartman prevailed (in the count as of Friday) by just 270 votes, less than 1 percent of the vote; in Deschutes County District 53, Emerson Levy won by just 278.

The unofficial results indicate Oregon Republicans cut the Democratic House caucus size from 37 to 35, as the many close races show, but they came close to seizing more seats than that. In all, about 1,600 flipped votes in the five closest Democratic-won races could have resulted in a tied House. On a statewide level, that’s close. 

Republicans netted an additional seat (or maybe two) in the Senate as well, bringing them close to a tie in that chamber.

All of this may make Oregon more difficult than some states to manage. But it has advantages.

This month’s election saw two more central Oregon counties, Morrow and Wheeler, vote in favor of the “greater Idaho” proposal to join Idaho, joining most other central and eastern Oregon counties in the somewhat whimsical proposal. The frustration by many people there is real and valid: The candidates and issues they tend to support regularly get outvoted by the more populous areas to the west.

But they’re probably not as unheard west of the Cascades as they may think. When Oregon’s new Democratic governor wins office with about 3.5% of the vote, as the numbers indicated on the weekend, that’s a signal that a serious governor candidate cannot simply ignore any substantial part of the state. In Oregon, more than in California or Idaho, small groups of people can have outsized political impact, and help shape many state policies. 

A state doesn’t have to be completely purple for that to be true. But Oregon’s shade of blue is soft enough that politicians take people, and their concerns, for granted at their peril. 

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Randy Stapilus

Randy Stapilus has researched and written about Northwest politics and issues since 1976 for a long list of newspapers and other publications. A former newspaper reporter and editor, and more recently an author and book publisher, he lives in Carlton.