Oregon Supreme Court decision not likely to be legislative boon for Democrats

February 2, 2024 5:30 am
The Oregon Supreme Court in Salem.

Outside of the Oregon Supreme Court in Salem on Dec. 14, 2023. (Ben Botkin/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

The Oregon Supreme Court decision barring 10 Republican state senators from another term after the current one was quickly assailed by Republicans, as you’d expect.

Republican Sen. Suzanne Weber of Tillamook responded, “I’m disappointed, but can’t say I’m surprised that a court of judges appointed solely by Gov. (Kate) Brown and Gov. (Tina) Kotek would rule in favor of political rhetoric rather than their own precedent. The only winners in this case are Democrat politicians and their union backers.”

That’s not quite right. Democrats and their backers aren’t likely to gain much out of it, though in a couple of years Weber’s district could be an exception. 

The court decision grew out of a dare and a long-shot bluff. After a series of extended walkouts during legislative sessions by enough Republican legislators to bring statehouse business to a halt, voters in 2022 passed a constitutional amendment providing that any legislator with 10 or more unexcused absences in a session could be barred from serving a subsequent term. Republicans challenged it on grounds that the ban could be read to refer to a future term after a walkout happens; the secretary of state and high court said that interpretation was contrary to voter expectations.

In the 2023 session, 10 Republican senators absented themselves regardless: Minority Leader Tim Knopp of Bend, Weber of Tillamook, Kim Thatcher of Keizer, Lynn Findley of Vale, Dennis Linthicum of Klamath Falls, Art Robinson of Cave Junction, Bill Hansell of Athena, Daniel Bonham of The Dalles, Brian Boquist of Dallas and Cedric Hayden of Fall Creek.

That might sound like a huge boon for Democrats, since legislative seats usually are easier to flip if they’re open than if an incumbent is defending them. But it’s not that simple. 

Of the 10, six senators are serving terms that expire after this year’s election. But two of those, Findley and Hansell, had announced their plans to retire from the Legislature anyway. (Their districts are very strongly Republican and highly unlikely to switch parties.)  Two more appeared to be paving the way for successors, with Robinson’s son and Linthicum’s wife filing to take their seats. 

That leaves only two seats specifically impacted this year. Knopp represents a Bend-area district which has developed a significant Democratic voter registration edge, and whether he or someone else is the Republican nominee, they’d probably face an uphill climb to keep the seat. Last month, Knopp – possibly anticipating what was coming from the Supreme Court – said he would back Downtown Bend Business Association Executive Director Shannon Monihan, who filed about the same time, for his seat.

That leaves only Boquist, a four-term senator who quit the Republican Party but recently rejoined it. He represents a district centered on Yamhill and Polk counties which overall is strongly Republican; his weakest Senate vote, in 2020, has been 58.3%. Democrats would need an unusual candidate or environment, and more than a little luck, to flip his seat this year. 

With a March 12 filing deadline fast approaching, Democrats would have a hard time developing competitive campaigns for most of these seats in this election cycle. 

That does leave the question of the four other impacted senators whose terms won’t be up until after the 2026 election: Weber, Bonham, Hayden and Thatcher. They still have a couple of years left in the chamber, and any of them could simply decide to retire, or maybe run for another non-legislative office at the next election. 

As election results and voting registration numbers suggest now, at least one of those seats – Hayden’s in rural eastern Lane and Douglas counties – is very likely to stay Republican. 

The other three are a little less certain. Bonham, Thatcher and Weber personally all have won by solid margins, but all three represent areas that are among the most politically marginal in Oregon, places where a strong candidate from either party cannot be discounted. Their departure from the Senate will throw a real challenge at Republicans to hold on to those seats in another couple of years. 

The Supreme Court decision didn’t – at least immediately – change the partisan outlook for the Oregon Senate much, at least for this year, and it could spur senators who will barred from a subsequent term to walk out over an issue they care about, like reinstituting criminal penalties under Measure 110. Knopp voiced a veiled threat about that on Wednesday.

Nevertheless, the Supreme Court decision reinforced the blunt message voters sent in 2022: Extended legislative walkouts in future will have consequences, even if those most directly hit individuals rather than parties.   


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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.