PORTLAND – As the nation turned to Republicans in the Congress, Oregon stood pat and re-elected all of its incumbents, five out of six of them Democrats. It turned to a familiar Democratic hand rather than a fresh GOP face for governor, and it did nothing venturesome in ballot measures.
Yet, when it came to the Legislature, the voters shook things up, turning solid Democratic majorities into a House evenly divided and a Senate nearly so.
How come? Why so little change at the top of the ticket and so much change nearer the bottom, in the legislative districts?
Chalk it up to the influence of independent voters, say some Oregon poll watchers.
The past two years, Oregon Democrats have enjoyed majorities of 36-24 in the House and 18-12 in the Senate – identical ratios of 3-2 that have enabled them to control the legislative agenda and pass tax increases without Republican help.
The results Tuesday leave the House at a 30-30 draw and, although two races remain in doubt, the Senate still is in Democratic hands by a seat or two. Many of the Republican gains came in districts in a collar around Portland that had flipped to the Democrats in 2006 and 2008.
By national standards, that was not an unusual result. Republican gains in statehouses across America were at least as striking as those in the Congress, according to data compiled by the bipartisan National Conference of State Legislatures.
While 53 percent of the legislative seats in the nation doesn’t seem like a large margin, it is historic, the organization said in a postelection analysis.
“Tuesday night’s GOP power sweep exceeded expectations, giving the party its largest number of seats since the Great Depression,” it said.
In Oregon, Republicans statewide had high turnout but still fell well short of turning in as many ballots as Democrats, who hold a decisive edge in registration – suggesting that in swing districts the GOP needed help to put its House and Senate candidates over the top.
“In the legislative races, I have no doubt that the independents broke heavily for the Republicans,” said Portland pollster Tim Hibbitts.
But independents thwarted Republican hopes in statewide and congressional races, said Hibbitts and a former Democratic secretary of state, Phil Keisling, both of whom studied pre-election and exit polling that showed large national swings among independent voters to GOP candidates.
Although Republican Chris Dudley got more votes from independent-minded voters than did Democrat John Kitzhaber, who won a third term as governor, he didn’t do as well among independents as other Republican candidates across the nation, Keisling said.
“Kitzhaber did far better than the typical Democrat,” said Keisling, now director of the Center for Public Service at Portland State’s Hatfield School of Government
The Independent Party was quick to claim success for its process, but another of its multiple-party nominees, Republican legislator Scott Bruun, fell short in his bid to unseat Democratic Rep. Kurt Schrader in Oregon’s 5th Congressional District.
Schrader was a first-term congressman representing the state district closely divided in partisan makeup, but he won a reputation, beginning as a state legislator, for centrist policies and working across party lines. He won such crossover endorsements as one from the National Rifle Association.
“Schrader was able to persuade the district that he was a more independent candidate,” said Keisling. The Independent Party, with a capital “I,” has seen explosive growth in three years, registering nearly 61,000 and becoming by far Oregon’s largest minor party.
There are about 423,000 voters registered as “non-affiliated,” according to the most recent figures posted by the secretary of state’s office. There are 662,000 voters registered as Republicans and 867,000 voters registered as Democrats.
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