The Democratic Race for Secretary of State Gave Voters—and Candidates—48 Hours to Remember

It was a contest of enormous consequence that will long be remembered as befitting the topsy-turvy era in which it was held.

At 7:55 on election night, state Sen. Shemia Fagan (D-Portland) put down her phone and went for a 15-minute walk around her neighborhood in Happy Valley.

A veteran of four previous contested races, Fagan, 38, decided to clear her mind before the onslaught of results that would pour into the Oregon Elections Division's online vote tabulation system.

Fagan was at the top of the ticket, running for the Democratic nomination for secretary of state against her caucus colleague Sen. Mark Hass (D-Beaverton) and Jamie McLeod-Skinner, a lawyer and natural resources consultant from Terrebonne.

Fagan returned from her walk at 8:10 and looked at the first results. They showed Hass, 63, nearly 10,000 votes ahead of her, with McLeod-Skinner well behind.

"I was surprised to be down," Fagan recalls. "I had been phone banking nine hours a day for the past week, and the response was really positive."

Normally on election night, candidates gather in downtown hotels with family and close friends, and eventually make their way to the ballrooms where press and political junkies await.

On this election night, COVID-19 foreclosed such gatherings. Fagan sat alone in her home with just her computer and a spread of junk food—a respite from the healthy diet she'd maintained during the campaign.

"I shopped like a 12-year-old girl who just got her allowance," she says. There were Cool Ranch Doritos, Crunchy Cheetos, Hot Tamales, assorted chocolates—and plenty of Mountain Dew. "That's my guilty pleasure," Fagan says.

What Fagan watched with her Doritos was what Len Bergstein, a veteran Democratic lobbyist, says was the most interesting Oregon result he can recall since a three-way Democratic primary for governor that Bob Straub won narrowly in 1974.

The bizarre, unreal and long-distance way the race unfolded perhaps disguised the consequences of the result. Oregon will redraw its legislative and congressional boundaries next year—including probably adding a sixth congressional district. If the Legislature cannot agree on the new lines, the secretary of state draws them. Second, the secretary of state automatically steps in should Gov. Kate Brown leave office for, say, a job in a Biden administration.

The secretary is also in a prime position to run for governor in 2022 if Brown serves her full term.

The contest between Fagan and Hass tested the might of progressive Oregon, including public employee unions and interest groups such as Planned Parenthood, against the entrenched power structure of business-friendly moderates, a legacy of Gov. John Kitzhaber. (McLeod-Skinner, a good-government Bernie Sanders acolyte, was the odd candidate out.)

It is a sign of where Oregon is politically that the real election battles are not between Democrats and Republicans, but between public employee-backed candidates and their fellow Democrats.

The results captivated political Oregon for 48 hours. The state's largest newspaper and a leading television news station called the race incorrectly.

Fagan congratulated Hass for a victory he never actually won, and she nearly keeled over when, once ahead, Fagan saw an official report that she was behind.
Interviews with both candidates and their supporters reveal a contest that will long be remembered as befitting the topsy-turvy era in which it was held.

At about 10:15 Tuesday night, Fagan called Hass to congratulate him on his victory. "After KGW called it, I said I better call Mark," she recalls. "I was sad, but he and I have always gotten along."

Hass missed the call and it went to voicemail.

"Her message was very kind," he says. "She said, 'Congratulations and I look forward to working together,'" Hass says. "But I knew it was premature."

Hass, his wife, Tamra, his campaign manager, Nick Salter, and a couple of friends borrowed the empty dining room at Noble Rot. A half-dozen people sat 6 feet apart in the shuttered lower East Burnside restaurant and wine bar owned by supporters. The kitchen was closed, so Hass schlepped in three large Pizzicato pies, and his crew washed them down with Oregon pinot noir.

From the dining room, Noble Rot offers a commanding view of downtown, but Hass only had eyes for his computer screen. Around 9:30 pm, The Oregonian called the race for Hass. KGW followed soon after. Hass, a veteran of nearly 20 years in Salem and a longtime TV news reporter before that, wasn't convinced.

"None of us felt like it was a done deal," he says. "That was difficult. People were calling with congrats, and I kept texting back, 'Whoa, Nellie.'"

He drove home to Beaverton at about 11:30 pm. Fagan stayed at her computer until 1:30 am. "I was thinking I'd probably lost, but hope springs eternal," she says.

By morning, the gap had closed from nearly 2 percentage points to little more than half a point.

Hass, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, had to preside over the 9 am release of the quarterly state revenue forecast, which showed a disastrous COVID-19-induced shortfall of $2.7 billion.

As officials sketched out a dismal budget reality, Hass felt his mind wandering to the race. "It was difficult," he says, "because I knew what might be coming."

He's referring to get-out-the-vote efforts that often lift union-backed candidates in statewide elections.

In the 2002 governor's race, Democrat Ted Kulongoski went to bed on election night trailing Republican Kevin Mannix. In 2008, Democrat Jeff Merkley went to bed trailing Republican Gordon Smith for the U.S. Senate. And in 2010, Democrat John Kitzhaber trailed Republican Chris Dudley for governor. But in each case, late votes pushed the Democrat to victory.

This time, both the leading candidates were Democrats. But the phenomenon was the same.

Joe Baessler, political director of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 75, says it's a matter of mobilizing thousands of volunteers and judiciously analyzing the voter file to see who hasn't yet voted. Progressive groups led by public employee union members made 500,000 phone calls and sent 200,000 text messages on Fagan's behalf, in addition to a barrage of mail and television advertising.

Fagan says people underestimate how important such outreach is. "The part the media misses is how much [organized] labor shows up as volunteers," she says.

One of the places they showed up: Lane County. Even in the first batch of votes, when Hass was well ahead, Lane showed as a beacon of strength for Fagan. Oregon Labor Commissioner Val Hoyle, who represented Eugene in the Legislature, says Fagan scored a key endorsement there from Eugene Weekly and benefited from a massive push from both public employee and trade unions.

"I don't think Mark had name recognition down here and Jamie didn't have the outreach," Hoyle says. "And we [labor] have a much better machine for getting out the vote."

But as confident as Hoyle was (she gave Fagan $5,000 from her PAC), she also believed the calls by The Oregonian and KGW. "I texted Mark at 10:14 on election night to congratulate him," she says.

And Baessler? He had spent election night in his 5-year-old son's bedroom with a blanket over his head. He always stays until his son is asleep, so that night he hid under the blanket to block the light from his smartphone, madly refreshing the Elections Division results page.

"The page wouldn't load, and then when it did, it was a little soul-crushing," Baessler says.

On Wednesday morning, Fagan began mentally moving on. She emailed the law firm where she works and let it know she'd be ready to work full time in June. To unwind, she watched a couple of episodes from Season 3 of Riverdale, but she couldn't stay away from her computer. After a Zoom call with her campaign team, Fagan focused on a spreadsheet that showed the late vote was breaking hard for her.

She put the numbers into her own spreadsheet and ran a projection based on Wednesday reports from county elections offices. "I was like, holy shit, I'm going to win this thing." It was 2:42 pm.

The numbers in Multnomah and Clackamas counties had turned sharply in her direction, eroding Hass' early lead. His advantage was down to 2,300 votes.
Hass, meanwhile, was exhausted. He'd gone to his campaign manager's office in Northwest Portland, but by midafternoon, he went home. At 5 pm, Fagan took the lead by 1,000 votes.

The Oregonian phoned her Wednesday night to tell her the paper was switching its prediction and declaring her the winner. "When [Oregonian executive editor] Therese Bottomly called me later to apologize, she said, 'We've never seen that kind of shift in the numbers before,'" Fagan says.

Thursday was more of the same—except a brief, breathtaking reversal when Yamhill County's updated count that morning seemed to swing the race back to Hass.

"My heart jumped and it stayed there all day," Fagan says.

Her supporters also panicked when the Elections Division briefly showed Hass ahead by 28,000 votes. "My Catholicism kicked in. I thought it was entirely my fault for being so happy," Baessler says. "Then our numbers guy told us there just aren't that many Democratic voters in Yamhill County."

Elections officials corrected the erroneous report and the trend continued: Fagan increased her lead Thursday as county clerks added late votes to their tallies. It was over.

"Mark called me to concede," Fagan says. "He was funny—he said, 'I'm responding to your voicemail of Tuesday evening.'"

Now, of course, the result was different. Hass and Fagan were scheduled to be on a Senate caucus Zoom call at noon on Thursday. Hass asked Fagan if he could break the news to their colleagues that the race was over.

After the caucus call, Fagan checked in with her team and turned off her phone. "I just laid down on the floor and played with my kids," she says. "And that's about all I did for the next three days."

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