If the May 20 primary election reinforced one lesson, it's that voters are paying attention.

They saw through the specious claims put forth by Portlanders for Water Reform, the group seeking to take over the city's water and sewer bureaus, sending them to the showers by a decisive margin of 73 percent to 27 percent.

In a sign of an improving economy, voters also passed numerous tax measures across the state—none bigger than Beaverton's mammoth $680 million school bond—and halted the rightward drift of the Clackamas County Commission, choosing two incumbents over more conservative challengers.

In Portland, voters recognized good performance, overwhelmingly re-electing incumbent City Commissioners Dan Saltzman and Nick Fish.

Voters also vetoed former City Commissioner Jim Francesconi's quest for redemption, electing Deborah Kafoury as Multnomah County chairwoman by a margin of 66 percent to 18 percent.

They even appeared to send a subtle message to Gov. John Kitzhaber. We're not sure, but the 27,000 Democratic voters backing a challenger—who didn't campaign and has the unforgettable name of Ifeanyichukwu C. Diru—might have been telling Kitzhaber something about Cover Oregon.

We did learn some things for certain: Oregonians really care about what goes in their bodies. Traditional values still matter in the GOP. And as powerful as they are, public employee unions are not infallible.

"There are some pretty complex issues out there," says Pacific University political science professor Jim Moore. "We are seeing an informed electorate. Voters seem to be able to see through the clutter and throw out the trash."

Here are four lessons from May 20:

Get ready for GMO mania. 

Perhaps one of the least noticed—at least in Portland—results May 20 was the extraordinary victory of a Jackson County group seeking to ban crops grown from genetically modified seeds.

The result was not close—ban proponents won by a margin of 66 percent to 34 percent. And they did so by overcoming major hurdles.

Jackson County remains both agricultural and conservative, with Republicans outnumbering Democrats by five percentage points. Its one liberal bastion, Ashland, doesn’t swing the county to the left like, say, Portland and Eugene do in Multnomah and Lane counties, respectively.

Secondly, Big Ag in the form of Monsanto, DuPont and Syngenta spent $930,000 to defeat the measure, almost 10 times as much as the proponents of the ban (“Put a Label on It,” WW, April 16, 2014).

Finally, the ban went further than other GMO-related measures that have cropped up recently in other places, such as California and Washington, where the industry narrowly defeated proposals to simply label GMO food.

Moore says he sees a common thread between last year’s rejection of fluoridation in Portland, the GMO ban and even Portlanders’ rejection of a Water Bureau takeover. “When you look at the results, both Republicans and Democrats voted for the ban,” Moore says. “It was the anti-corporate sentiment that carried the day.”

Oregonians statewide will probably have a GMO labeling measure on the November ballot. Look for a battle royale—and probably the most expensive ballot-measure campaign in Oregon history.

“We expect that the labeling measure’s going to get a lot of attention,” says Paige Richardson, a spokeswoman for Oregon GMO Right to Know. “The chemical companies that make GMOs are going to do everything they can to stop us.”

Public employee unions aren’t invincible. 

Oregon’s public employee unions have long been astute political players.

They have used their members’ money, phone-banking and canvassing to win huge victories in recent years, helping House Democrats retake a large majority in 2012 and pushing Gov. John Kitzhaber to a narrow victory in 2010. Last week, they powered Rob Nosse to victory in House District 42 (Southeast Portland) and played a big role in defeating the takeover of the water and sewer bureaus.

But on May 20, the unions also suffered rare defeats in two high-profile races.

Service Employees International Union and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees threw strong endorsements and big money ($28,000 from SEIU and $20,000 from AFSCME) behind Multnomah County chair candidate Jim Francesconi. The money allowed Francesconi to air campaigns ads, which had minimal impact: He lost to former Multnomah County Commissioner Deborah Kafoury by a whopping margin of about 4-to-1.

Francesconi built his campaign around job creation, and pledged to help unions build membership as part of that strategy. He won strong union backing—and nearly $80,000 in contributions—from labor groups.

“Jim was clearly somebody they were more comfortable with,” says veteran lobbyist Len Bergstein. “But I just don’t know what the strategy was, except that he was all in on messaging about income inequality that never resonated with voters.” 

Joe Baessler, AFSCME’s political director, says his union, the biggest representing public employees in the county, supported Francesconi because they want change.

“It was a vote against the status quo,” Baessler says.

Kafoury’s margin of victory, he says, was surprising. “There were a massive number of undecideds,” Baessler says. “She ran good ads and a good campaign, and what voters knew about Jim wasn’t necessarily good.”

The Oregon Education Association, the state’s biggest teachers union, bet even bigger on Deborah Barnes, a teacher and union official seeking an open seat in House District 41 (Milwaukie and parts of Southeast Portland).

The OEA gave Barnes $115,000, and other public employee unions gave her another $42,000.

Yet Barnes, a former two-term Milwaukie city councilor, lost to Kathleen Taylor, a political newcomer, 61 percent to 33 percent. 

Barnes say she’s still scratching her head about the result. She says she put 12 pieces of mail in front of voters and had OEA members phone-banking for her until the polls closed.

“There’s a part of me that feels I disappointed a whole bunch of union folks,” Barnes says. “I feel like the really low turnout hurt me.”

Right to Life lives. 

This May, the anti-abortion group Oregon Right to Life and its ideological partner, the Oregon Family Council, shook up a sleepy primary season.

The two groups spent heavily in four GOP House primaries and certainly violated what Ronald Reagan called the 11th commandment: “Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican.”

The two groups helped fund an avalanche of ads, some of which did “speak ill,” and they  also won four of four races. And in two of them, radio host Bill Post in House District 25 (Salem-Keizer) and Mike Nearman in House District 23 (Dallas) drew most of their financial support from Oregon Right to Life and the Oregon Family Council.

Collectively, those two groups have already spent $645,000 this year. That’s more than the three major public employee unions have spent combined.

“Nothing has changed,” says Tim Nashif, a board member of the Oregon Family Council. “Things work the same way they’ve always worked in Republican primaries. The majority of Republicans believe in traditional marriage between one man and one woman.”

Marriage split the Oregon GOP earlier this year, after a group of moderate Republicans came out in favor of same-sex marriage, which appeared to be headed to the November ballot. That tactic seemed to be a grab for independent voters and an attempt to undercut a traditional Democratic advantage.

That gambit led many conservatives to boycott the Dorchester Conference, the annual GOP gathering in March at the Oregon coast.

The split fueled an unusually contentious primary. “This all goes back to Dorchester,” Nashif says.

Nashif says that when GOP candidates have similar positions on economic issues, then social issues such as same-sex marriage become more important.

“Marriage and abortion make a difference if all else is equal,” he says.

Dr. Monica Wehby managed the near impossible in her victory in the U.S. Senate GOP primary—she managed to largely dodge the question of abortion. Wehby told the public she is personally pro-life, but she wouldn’t push to change the law. “Her position is confusing,” says Nashif, whose group endorsed Wehby’s opponent, state Rep. Jason Conger (R-Bend).

Wehby was almost alone in winning a contested primary without the support of her party’s conservative wing.

“In certain districts, people didn’t have a good grasp of who would be voting,” says moderate GOP political consultant Lindsay Berschauer. “It turns out that it was 65 and older and socially very conservative. It’s unfortunate in our primaries that unless you are endorsed by pro-life or socially conservative groups, you don’t have a chance.”

Environmentalists use their resources efficiently.

One of the major stories of the 2012 campaign was the Oregon League of Conservation Voters’ audacious and successful attack on five-term state Rep. Mike Schaufler (D-Happy Valley). Under new executive director Doug Moore, a Beltway refugee, OLCV hand-picked a challenger for Schaufler and beat an incumbent state representative in a primary for the first time in nearly 20 years.

OLCV was less bold this time but just as successful. The group recruited land-use lawyer Ken Helm to run for an open seat in House District 34 (Washington County) and spent nearly $20,000, half the money OLCV donated this year, supporting him.

The race between Helm and Brian Tosky, an educational consultant, attracted unusually broad interest: Associated Oregon Industries, the Oregon Business Association and large corporations piled in on Tosky’s side, while the Oregon Trial Lawyers Association and public employee unions followed OLCV into Helm’s campaign. Both candidates spent about $160,000, but Helm came out on top in the vote, 49 percent to 39 percent.

“OLCV had significant success again this year,” Bergstein says. “And the business groups just got this one wrong.”