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Republicans face best chances in years to gain state Senate seats

SALEM – Republicans have their best chance in years to wrest control of the Oregon Senate away from Democrats this November, buoyed by national trends, a competitive governor’s race and key issues and concerns that favor the GOP.

State political analysts say this cycle could be as positive for Republicans as 2010, when they got out of superminority status in the Senate, tied the House 30-30 and came within 1.5 percentage points of winning the governor’s office — the narrowest margin of victory since 1956.

In 2010, the economy was still weak, only about one-quarter of Americans believed the country was going in the right direction and it was the first midterm for a Democratic president, an electorally strong position for Republicans — trends that are mirrored today.

“This is going to be a good year for Republicans, it’s just a question if it’s moderately good or historically good,” Oregon Democratic strategist Jake Weigler said. 

The last time Republicans controlled the Senate was 2002, the House, 2006.

Most attention is being focused on the Senate, where Republicans have a legitimate chance to end supermajority control and potentially tie the chamber. The Senate’s current makeup is 18 Democrats, 11 Republicans and one Independent, Sen. Brian Boquist of Polk and Yamhill counties, a former Republican. Additionally, Republican Sen. Art Robinson of Cave Junction stopped caucusing with Republicans during the 2021 session, instead caucusing with Boquist.

Benefiting Republicans are the top issues being discussed across the state this election cycle: homelessness, crime and cost of living. These are all issues Republicans feel strongest talking about and that energize their base. 

Democrats would prefer to focus on issues like health care, education and climate change. Not only are these issues important to left-leaning voters, but also Democratic lawmakers say they’ve made progress on them.

“No one wants to hear about what you’ve done because they’re frustrated,” Weigler said. “They think the state is going in the wrong direction.”

Part of the reason for the focus on these issues is a tight governor’s race between Democrat Tina Kotek, Republican Christine Drazan and nonaffiliated Betsy Johnson. Both Johnson and Drazan have spent millions of dollars criticizing how Kotek and Democrats have tried to address particularly crime and homelessness in the Legislature, forcing Kotek to respond with messaging of her own.

“Kotek has done as good a job as you can do to explain the records of Democrats in the state, but it’s not anything voters want to hear right now,” Oregon GOP political consultant Jim Pasero said.

With the amount of airtime and digital advertising committed to homelessness, crime and cost of living, and the fact that these issues are felt statewide, it’s natural they are permeating most races.

“These state legislative races can’t really swim against the tide,” Weigler said. 

Propping up Democrats’ chances is their inherent advantage in voter registration. As of October, Democrats made up 34% of registered voters, Republicans were 25% and nonaffiliated voters were 35%.

Democrats also hold registration advantages in most of the districts up for grabs this year.

Voter registration numbers are still a major factor in determining which candidate is ultimately victorious. 

According to data collected by pollster John Horvick, senior vice president at DHM Research, in 1990 around 20 seats in the Oregon Legislature were won by candidates whose party had fewer registered voters in that district than their opponent. 

In 2020, that number was around four.

Horvick said this data supports other observations and studies that have shown the disappearance of ticket splitting — when a voter supports both Democrat and Republican candidates on their ballot — and true swing voters.

“If you have a party advantage heading into your election, you’re almost guaranteed to win,” he said.

National trends are likely to impact Oregon’s election outcomes, too.

Historically, the party that controls the White House during the first midterm election under a new president suffers losses at the state and federal levels. National experts have been saying for months this year appears to favor Republicans, though their predicted edge was moderated somewhat after the Dobbs decision energized voters favoring abortion access in special elections nationwide. 

But President Joe Biden has a low approval rating and most Americans believe the country is headed in the wrong direction, analysts say. People are also concerned about the economy, particularly high gas prices and inflation. 

“The real question is, if nationally it’s going to be a Republican year … will that matter in Oregon or not?” Pasero said.

Of the 16 seats up for election in the state Senate this year, 13 are currently held by Democrats, which provides Republicans with more pick-up opportunities. According to state political experts, five of these districts are particularly competitive, due one or several factors, including: an incumbent retiring, new district lines shifting voter demographics or a significant financial advantage for one candidate.

Here are the races that will decide if Republicans can take control of the Senate or whether Democrats will continue their two decades of control.

Senate District 3

Four years ago, the victory by Sen. Jeff Golden, D-Ashland, in Senate District 3 gave Democrats supermajority control of the upper chamber. Now, Golden is facing a well-funded challenger in Republican Randy Sparacino, the current mayor of the district’s largest city, Medford. 

Sparacino has out-raised Golden 4-1, with about half of his $930,000 arriving since the beginning of October. 

Democrats hold a 7.5 percentage point registration advantage and have held this southern Oregon seat since 2003, except from 2017-2019 when a Republican won after the incumbent Democrat died in office. 

Senate District 10

The most expensive Senate race this cycle is in Senate District 10, with incumbent Democratic Sen. Deb Patterson raising just shy of $750,000 and Republican Rep. Raquel Moore-Green topping $1.5 million in campaign contributions.

Both candidates have elected office experience, with Patterson having served for two years in the Senate after winning a special election for the seat, while Moore-Green has represented House District 19 since she was appointed to the position in July 2019.

Democrats maintain a 7.4 percentage point voter registration advantage in this district centered on Salem, but historically that hasn’t mattered as much. From 2003 to 2021, the district was represented by Republicans, mostly by the late Sen. Jackie Winters, and then briefly by Denyc Boles after Winters died in office in 2019.

Senate District 11

Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, chose not to run for re-election in Senate District 11 this cycle, ending his time as the longest-serving legislator in state history. Democrat Rich Walsh, a former Keizer city councilor, is running against Republican state Sen. Kim Thatcher of Keizer to replace him.

Thatcher’s Senate District 13 shifted significantly toward Portland after redistricting, but experts say Thatcher has a good chance to win this district. She has regional name recognition and has served for nearly 18 years in the Legislature. She’s also raised more than $700,000 since the beginning of September for a total of $950,000 compared with $560,000 for Walsh. 

Democrats hold a 5-point registration advantage in the district, which runs from Salem and Keizer north to Woodburn. 

Senate District 16

From 2007 until late last year, this northern coastal district from St. Helens to Tillamook, was represented by Betsy Johnson, a conservative Democrat who easily defeated her Republican challengers. Sen. Rachel Armitage was appointed to the seat after Johnson resigned to run for governor, and she is not running for the seat either.

The race is between Republican Rep. Suzanne Weber and Democrat Melissa Busch. Weber has served one term in the House while Busch has no elected experience.

Democrats have a slim voter registration advantage in the district at less than 3 percentage points. Weber has also out-raised Busch by more than 80%, collecting nearly $398,000 compared with about $216,000 for Busch.

Senate District 20

Experienced lawmakers Republican incumbent Sen. Bill Kennemer and Democratic Rep. Mark Meek are competing for this seat. Before new maps were drawn last year, there was nearly an equal number of registered Republicans and Democrats in Senate District 20 but now Meek has the edge, analysts say. 

The district is now much more urban and leans Democrat by 9.4 percentage points, and includes Oregon City, Happy Valley and Gladstone. Plus, former Republican Sen. Alan Olsen — who narrowly defended the seat for nearly a decade — resigned last year.

Meek has served in the House since 2017, while Kennember — after a decade in the House — was appointed to the Senate in 2021 to replace Olsen.

Kennemer has raised $1.1 million compared to Meek’s $830,000.

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