The Secret Winners and Losers of May Primaries in Portland

Not every victor was actually on the ballot.

An election-night party at the Hoxton Hotel. (Jake Nelson)

In many of last week’s party primaries, particularly for the Oregon House of Representatives and statewide elected offices like secretary of state, the Democratic nominee was a shoo-in.

But in local nonpartisan races, like two of the Multnomah County races, no candidate reached the 50%-plus-1 vote threshold needed to win outright. That means the top two candidates in each race will have to duke it out again this fall.

You can find election results at But after every election, we like to think about what the results say about the broader political landscape: Who wasn’t on the ballot but won anyway, and whose prospects for November took a tumble? Here’s what we noticed.


Portland nonprofits and labor

Despite spending modest money on the two contested Multnomah County races, progressive groups and labor unions saw both of their preferred candidates—Disability Rights Oregon political director Meghan Moyer in District 1 and former Joint Office of Homeless Services director Shannon Singleton in District 2—make it to the November runoff.

Their wins were especially impressive given that downtown businesses and property owners saw this election as their best shot at shaking up Multnomah County.

Service Employees International Union Local 49, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, and several major nonprofits spent $80,000 on their own independent expenditure campaigns to support Moyer and Singleton. Both women received more votes than their moderate challengers.

Local governments

Multnomah County has one of the highest marginal tax rates in the nation, thanks to the willingness of voters to fund social service programs through various tax measures over the years. That willpower appeared to be dwindling in recent years. Anti-tax sentiment rose to such a fever pitch last year that Gov. Tina Kotek asked local governments to impose a three-year tax moratorium.

Yet all four tax measures on the May ballot passed. (Three were renewals—meaning they won’t impose a new tax, just continue an existing one.) Either the anti-tax rhetoric in town is overblown, or the angriest taxpayers already skipped town.

Israel’s backers

Because Oregon has weak campaign finance laws, spending by outside interests to prop up candidates carried an outsized influence. In the two heated races for the 3rd and 5th Congressional Districts, a national political action committee linked to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee helped the more moderate Democrats, state Reps. Maxine Dexter (D-Portland) and Janelle Bynum (D-Happy Valley), clinch their party’s nominations by spending over $2.6 million right before May 21.

Supporters of Israel’s military campaign in Gaza don’t need to worry about Portland anymore—not at the ballot box, at least.


Business interests

This might seem counterintuitive given that the funders of People for Portland scored the item at the top of their wish list: the defeat of Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt.

But support for Schmidt’s opponent, Nathan Vasquez, didn’t extend to votes for change in other county contests.

Real estate interests and industry associations, through a network of independent expenditure campaigns coordinated by someone hired by the Portland Metro Chamber, spent a total of $350,000 to elect the more moderate candidates in two Multnomah County commissioner races. Neither of their chosen candidates finished first in the primary, which means they’ll have to make up ground in November, when the electorate is more liberal.

The Chamber also made an easily avoidable error: It endorsed both of the business-friendly candidates instead of picking just one. Adams advanced to the runoff.

The red panda

Regional government Metro passed its $380 million bond renewal for the Oregon Zoo, thanks to mailers featuring an adorable red panda making a face the internet calls a “blep.” (That’s when a cuddly animal sticks its tongue out.)

But the 56% support was about as soft as it gets for the top ticketed attraction in the state. What’s more, it was weaker than the support the zoo received in 2008, when it asked for $125 million for an elephant habitat (among other projects) and captured nearly 58% of the vote. At this rate, the Oregon Zoo Foundation will have to send penguins to voters’ mailboxes the next time the zoo wants money.

City of Portland candidates

Portland voters this fall will elect 14 people to run the city. It will be the largest number of open positions in recent city history because of the new form of government that kicks in Jan. 1, 2025.

That means available money from the interest groups that normally spend big bucks on city and county races—labor, business, and the progressive nonprofit coalition—will be stretched even further this year. More than 70 candidates are vying for City Council already, and May’s results mean two hotly contested Multnomah County races are going to a November runoff.

Either those interest groups will have to spread their resources thinly across more races, or concentrate on a few and let the rest fall by the wayside. But almost inevitably, it will mean that catching the eye—and pocketbook—of those interest groups will be hard for first-time city candidates.

Correction: A previous version of this story said that Sam Adams and Jessie Burke combined garnered more votes than Shannon Singleton. However, final tallies show that Singleton ended up getting 350 more votes than Adams and Burke combined. WW regrets the error.

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