Cindy Condon moderates a virtual Salem City Club featuring political scientist Bill Lunch (top right), veteran reporter Jeff Mapes (bottom left) and political scientist Jim Moore (bottom right). (Screengrab)

Between the pandemic and wildfires, it might be easy to forget that another consequential event is coming up for residents of Salem and the rest of the state: the November general election.

To help get voters up to speed, the Salem City Club on Friday held its first of six online forums covering the location. The event featured three of the state’s top political analysts who weighed in on what’s at stake on the ballot.

Statewide, voters will decide races for secretary of state, attorney general and treasurer. Democrats are well-positioned in each race, said Jim Moore, Pacific University professor and director of political outreach at the Tom McCall Center for Civic Engagement.

“Remember, we have a built-in bias towards Democrats, simply because there are more Democrats in the state, and so Democrats do better,” he said.

In three of the races, the Democrats hold significant fundraising advantages over their Republican opponents.

But Moore said that Republicans could chip away at the Democrats’ supermajority in both houses of the Legislature. There are two competitive seats in the Senate where Democrats hold an 18-12 majority, he said. The first is Oregon’s southern coast to replace outgoing Sen. Arnie Roblan, a Coos Bay Democrat who won his seat by 250 votes four years ago.

The other is in the Salem area where Sen. Denyc Boles, a Republican who was appointed to the late Jackie Winters seat, will try to fend off a challenge from Democrat Deb Patterson, an ordained minister and former health care executive.

Moore said that both campaigns in that race are well-funded but voter registration in the district has shifted toward Democrats recently. He said the race will pivot on turnout and how voters respond to Boles’ participation in a Republican-led walkout in the last legislative session over a contentious climate bill last session.

“Is that going to be a part of the campaign? Is that going to move voters?” he said.

In the House, where Democrats hold a 38-22 majority, there are five competitive seats including two in the Salem area, he said.

Rep. Paul Evans, D-Monmouth, is facing a rematch from Republican Selma Pierce, who lost by about 2,000 votes. While both have raised large amounts of money, the district has increasingly favored Democrats, he said.

The race between Rep. Raquel Moore-Green, R-Salem, and Democrat Jackie Leung is less competitive after the Republican incumbent raised $474,000 to her challenger’s $43,000, he said.

“I think that Moore-Green is going to be able to basically spend her way into winning this particular race,” he said.

Bill Lunch, a retired Oregon State University political scientist, said that the U.S. Senate is in play with competitive seats across the country. But he said Oregon is not among them, pointing to how Sen. Jeff Merkley faces weak opposition from Republican Jo Rae Perkins, who hasn’t raised much money.

He said that U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, a Democrat who represents a Congressional district south of Salem for decades, is likely to keep his seat against Republican Alek Skarlatos. But he said that Republicans are thinking ahead with Skarlatos, a former Oregon National Guardsman who rose to fame for his role in stopping a gunman on a train in Paris in 2015.

“If DeFazio leaves, if he were to retire or run for another office, let's say, then the Republicans are essentially grooming Skarlatos to run and would be probably pretty competitive,’ he said.

Jeff Mapes, a veteran political reporter currently with Oregon Public Broadcasting, said the initiatives on the November ballot can be boiled down to “campaign money, cigarettes, psilocybin and all other illegal drugs.”

Measure 107 would allow caps to be placed on the limitless amount of money candidates can currently accept in Oregon. But a state Supreme Court ruling this year determined that limits on political donations are legal in Oregon, rendering the measure moot. 

Measure 108 would raise the taxes on a pack of cigarettes by $2 and tax vaping products. Mapes said that normally the tobacco industry would spend big money fighting it. But after a similar ballot measure in California passed after the industry spent millions, it appears to have given up in Oregon and there is little organized opposition to the measure, he said.

Measure 110 would decriminalize illegal drugs like meth, heroin and cocaine, replacing misdemeanor possession charges for noncriminal citations and directing money towards drug treatment. The measure is backed by the New York-based Drug Policy Alliance, which has been active in marijuana legalization measures. Mapes said that the measure would make Oregon the first state to decriminalize drugs.

“Oregon is really kind of a test case for them,” he said.

Measure 109 would legalize the use of psilocybin, found in magic mushrooms, for therapeutic purposes under the care of a licensed therapist. Mapes said it’s notable that it goes further than the drug decriminalization measure.

The topic of President Donald Trump’s baseless claims that mail-in voting is prone to fraud also came up during the forum. Moore said that while there are more Democratic voters in Oregon, for the last 20 years the state has used vote-by-mail Republicans have turned out at a higher percentage.

He said he will be watching closely if Trump sees fewer votes for himself in Oregon by discouraging Republicans from casting their ballots by mail.

  Contact reporter Jake Thomas at 503-575-1251 or [email protected] or @jakethomas2009.

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