National GOP tide ebbed before reaching Oregon

The whims of the voting electorate tend to swing back and forth like a pendulum from election cycle to election cycle. Historically speaking, Republicans vote in greater numbers than Democrats in non-Presidential elections. President Obama’s low approval ratings accelerated this natural trend, and created the ideal conditions for Republicans to gain control over both chambers of Congress.

While voting preferences across the country are shifting from blue to red, Oregon is a solidly Democratic state. Oregon’s last Republican Governor, the Hon. Vic Atiyeh, was elected in 1982. Oregon’s last statewide Republican office holder, Jack Roberts, was elected as Labor Commissioner in 1997. The last time Republicans held majority control of the Oregon Senate was in the 2001 Session, and the last time Republicans held majority control of the House was in the 2005 Session. There were brief stints of equal power-sharing control in both chambers (Senate: 2003; House: 2010), but Democrats have been the only party to enjoy clear majorities for roughly the last decade. The whims of the electorate still swing like a pendulum, but at the state level the pendulum tends to swing between slight Democratic majorities in each chamber to Democratic supermajorities.

Normally all eyes are at the top of the ticket; however, U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, who was running for his first re-election campaign, enjoyed a nearly double-digit lead in the polls over the course of the entire campaign—a lead that has steadily grown from 8 points to 19 points. Similarly, incumbent Gov. John Kitzhaber’s re-election chances were seen as an absolute, with a major fundraising edge and another double-digit lead in the polls. Even after accusations of ethical breaches by the First Lady, Gov. Kitzhaber has continued to dominate the polls, albeit to a lesser extent of projected victory.

The frontlines of this year’s power play were fought in the State Senate, largely due to environmental organizations and anti-gun activists that were able to secure millions of dollars from out-of-state billionaires seeking to advance a more liberal agenda through the chamber. One of the primary goals behind this investment was to increase the Democrats’ one seat majority (16-14), in order to inoculate moderate Democratic Sen. Betsy Johnson, who from time to time has dared to cross party lines on matters of policy. Senate Democrats successfully defeated Republican incumbent Sen. Betsy Close, adding one seat to their majority status (now 17-13). In Hillsboro, former state representative Chuck Riley holds a 221 vote lead over Senator Bruce Starr. The final results from this race will determine whether or not Senate Democrats will capture a supermajority.

While Democrats currently have a larger majority in the House (34-26), four of the five competitive races were seats held by Democrats, creating an opportunity for the pendulum to swing to the right. However, Democrats not only defended their four vulnerable seats, they even picked up one previously held by Rep. Vicki Berger (R-West Salem), who is retiring. One of the biggest surprises came from Washington County, where two House districts currently held by Democrats were considered very competitive and likely to shift during a non-presidential election, as both of the Democrats swept the districts by margins of seven or more points. Democrats will now control the House of Representatives with a 35-25 majority.

In every election, there is always a measurable level of negativity, but competitive races in this election cycle seemed to make negative campaigning more of a focal point rather than an addendum to their campaign plans. And the unprecedented level of out-of-state money amplified that more negative tone. Negative campaigning, by design and in practice, has been proven to drive down voter participation. However, knowing that turnout among key Democratic constituencies tends to diminish during midterm elections, liberal organizations prepared several measures designed to increase turnout among Democratic base voters in this election.

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