The Victories of Three First-Time Women Candidates Over Moderate Republican Incumbents Defined Last Week’s Election in Oregon.

Republicans saw this election as an opportunity to build on gains from two years ago and move Oregon toward more centrist policies. They were wrong.

Election night odds were stacked against Courtney Neron in her bid to represent Wilsonville in the Oregon House.

She hadn't run for office since student council in high school, and her opponent, incumbent Rep. Rich Vial, was a moderate Republican who outspent her 7 to 1 in a district won by the GOP every election since 1996.

But when last week's national blue wave hit Oregon, Neron, a 39-year-old former high school Spanish and French teacher, became the state's unlikeliest beneficiary. She won by 51 to 47 percent.

"I became so excited," she says. "We might be able to fund education. Knowing that's within reach, it felt like every ounce of effort had been worth it."

Nationally, the impact of President Donald Trump's nationalist, anti-immigrant politics has been well-documented. Suburban women voters abandoned the Republican Party this election, voting for Democrats and electing a record number of women to the U.S. House of Representatives.

In Oregon, Republicans saw this election as an opportunity to build on gains from two years ago and move Oregon toward more centrist policies. They were wrong.

In every contest—including ballot measures—Oregon voters showed they would do anything to repudiate President Trump and the Republican brand. For just the second time in 54 years, Democrats turned out to vote at a higher rate than Republicans.

"I would try to tease out specific issues," says incoming state Sen. Shemia Fagan (D-East Portland), "and people would tell me they were voting Democrat down the ticket."

Not only did Democratic Gov. Kate Brown cruise to re-election over a strong opponent, Rep. Knute Buehler (R-Bend), Democrats also picked up three seats in the House to capture a supermajority. That's because Neron and two other Democrats in the Portland suburbs—both of them women—beat Republican incumbents. Democrats added an open Senate seat in Ashland to gain the supermajority in that chamber, too. Supermajorities, three-fifths majorities in each chamber, will allow them to pass new taxes.

Preston Mann, a spokesman for House Republicans, says Neron's win was emblematic of a night of shocks.

"If you're looking for evidence of a blue wave, you don't have to look any further than that race," Mann tells WW. "Those suburban swing voters have been really impacted by what's been going on at the federal level."

The two big impacts of that wave? Democrats now have an opportunity to pass tax increases without a single Republican vote. And the Republican moderate is an endangered species: The three Republicans who voted for a gun-control bill last session—closing the so-called "boyfriend" loophole—lost last week to Democrats.

Neron's upset victory might have been least surprising to the incumbent, Vial.
In 2016, he beat a well-funded Democrat, Ray Lister, 55 to 45 percent, in a district where voter registration was almost evenly split between Democrats and Republicans.

But this year, Vial says he started receiving letters from Democratic constituents during the U.S. Senate confirmation hearings for Supreme Court justice nominee Brett Kavanaugh. They told him they would no longer cross party lines.

"With the scarlet R behind my name, it was assumed I didn't share a lot of people's view of the world," Vial says.

"We are just seeing a perfect storm," he adds. "Whether that perfect storm will last another two years, another four years, I have no idea. But the storm right now means that Oregon can't elect moderates. I don't think there's anybody in this state that has tried as hard as I have to be moderate."

The results show greater polarization in other ways as well.

In 2016, when Americans elected President Trump, Oregonians elected a social conservative, former state Rep. Dennis Richardson (R-Central Point), as secretary of state, the first Republican elected statewide since 2002. Voters also rejected Measure 97, a $3 billion tax increase backed by previously unassailable public employee unions.

It appears Republicans and the state's biggest business lobby—Oregon Business & Industry—took the wrong message from those 2016 results.
OBI's political action committee for candidates spent $530,000 this year, with all but about $20,000 going to Republicans. The state's business interests looked to the ballot box to restrict the Democratic majorities from passing taxes.

The Northwest Grocery Association backed Measure 103, which would have banned a tax on groceries nobody was actually proposing. And the Oregon Association of Realtors rallied behind Measure 104, which would have protected tax breaks like the mortgage interest deduction.

The campaign backing Measure 103—the grocery tax ban—spent $6.2 million (nearly double what the "no" campaign spent). The campaign for Measure 104 spent $2.7 million (triple its opponents' spending).

Both business-backed measures lost by wide margins—57 to 43 percent and 65 to 35 percent, respectively.

Some of the architects of defeating Measure 97 in 2016 also ran Priority Oregon, the dark money group that spent millions trying to persuade voters to unseat incumbent Gov. Brown. But like Vial, GOP nominee Buehler learned that if you are male and a Republican, it doesn't matter whether you are moderate. Buehler lost by 6.24 points.

So what now? Becca Uherbelau, executive director of the labor-backed advocacy group Our Oregon, says voters gave Brown and the Legislature a mandate to raise new revenue for health care and schools.

"It's a clear message that Oregon voters and Oregon communities care about an equitable tax system, and they care about the future of our schools and our health system," Uherbelau says. "It was a fight for the ability to invest in our schools and our health care system. Tens of thousands of Oregonians will look to the Legislature and the governor to move things forward."

As Democrats head into the legislative session, two issues loom large: school funding and a cap-and-trade carbon-reduction policy. (A court ruling means such legislation may be able to pass without a supermajority, though a three-fifths vote would forestall further legal challenges.) At the same time, the wider majorities breathe new life into other left-leaning agenda items, including tenant protections and criminal justice reform.

Business interests' best hope of having a say may be in the state Senate, where Democrats won a supermajority, but without any wiggle room. Senate President Peter Courtney (D-Salem), who favors a bipartisan approach to governance, has worried publicly since the results about the need for Republican cooperation to conduct Senate business.

His caucus, which holds a bare supermajority of 18-12, is less liberal and less in control of its chamber than House Democrats, who have a two-vote cushion beyond the 36 votes needed for a supermajority.

The narrow balance of power in the Senate may again place a woman in charge of the legislative agenda. Arguably the Senate's most conservative Democrat is state Sen. Betsy Johnson (D-Scappoose), who is likely to be the swing vote on any issue that requires a three-fifths majority, like taxes.

"I think there's a lot of optimism," says East Portland's Fagan. "It's not like we're trying to fund something controversial that Republicans don't think should be funded. School funding is something we can all agree on."