SALEM — Democrats will remain in charge of both chambers of the Oregon Legislature when the new session opens Jan. 9, but will lack the 60% majorities required to pass revenue-raising measures on their own.
Results are incomplete, but Republicans managed to reduce the Democrats’ 18-12 majority in the Senate and 37-23 majority in the House.
Whichever party has a majority usually names the House speaker and Senate president. They appoint the members and leaders of committees — where most of the work of the Oregon Legislature is done — and assign bills to the committees. The majority party usually sets the agenda for the chambers.
Democrats have held majorities in both chambers for a decade, and supermajorities — 60%, the requirement for revenue-raising measures — since 2019.
Republicans were aided by the Bring Balance to Salem political action committee, founded by former U.S. Rep. Greg Walden — himself a former Oregon House majority leader and Oregon state senator — and helped by a $2 million contribution from Nike co-founder Phil Knight.
Republicans mounted a strong bid to win their first majority in the Senate, or at least force a 15-15 tie, in two decades. They lost their majority in 2002, when Democrats gained a tie, and then Democrats won three seats for an outright majority in 2004.
Oregon HouseDemocrats are likely to retain their majority over Republicans in the House. But that majority will be smaller than in the past four years.
Results are incomplete, but Republicans apparently gained a net two or three seats, enough to reduce Democrats below the supermajority mark of 36. There will be at least 20 new members — 13 Democrats and seven Republicans are vacating their seats — and if all six appointees on the ballot win their elections (most were leading), almost half the House will be serving their first 160-day long session in 2023.
Rep. Greg Smith, R-Heppner, said the election outcome was something of a mixed bag.
“It wasn’t as big a wave as internally we were being told,” he said. “And so there was really an expectation that we would get to 28, maybe 29 in the House.”
Smith said while he is grateful and even excited about the Democrats losing their supermajority, he is a bit disappointed his party didn’t gain more seats.
Overall, he said, the election reflected a generational shift. The longest-serving Senate president, Peter Courtney, retired. The longest-serving House speaker, Tina Kotek, now is the governor-elect. And more than 70% of the Legislature has never served in a public setting.
The change makes Smith not just the most senior member of the House, but of the whole legislative assembly.
Democrat Dan Rayfield of Corvallis, who succeeded Tina Kotek as speaker at the start of the 2022 short session, is likely to be his party’s nominee for a full two-year term as presiding officer. The speaker is chosen by the full House, but the majority party’s choice usually prevails.
Smith said he had a recent conversation with Rayfield, and he seems to be taking a different approach to the role from past speakers of the House.
“He’s very collaborative, and I really think he is trying to be a speaker of all Oregonians,” Smith said. “For me, while I’m not going to compromise my basic principles, I look forward to working with him.”
The House had 25 new members in 1999 after Oregon’s term limits kicked in, and 24 new members in 2001. Those totals exclude two members with prior legislative service in 1999, and one in 2001. The Supreme Court tossed out term limits in 2002.
Smith said the change in the Legislature could bode well.
“Hopefully, it’s a new era in Oregon,” Smith said, “to where there can be broader collaboration and broader problem-solving.”
One other note: Five Vietnamese Americans will serve in the House, the largest group of Asian Americans ever in the Oregon Legislature. (Four others have served in Oregon history, but not at the same time.) All are Democrats.
Rep. Khanh Pham of Portland was elected to a second term in District 45. She will be joined by Hai Pham of Hillsboro, a pediatric dentist, in District 36; Daniel Nguyen of Lake Oswego, a restaurant owner, in District 38; Thuy Tran of Portland, an optometrist, in District 45; and Hoa Nguyen of Portland, an attendance coach for Portland Public Schools, in District 48.
Republicans were in the majority most recently in 2006. They managed to force a first-ever 30-30 tie with Democrats after the 2010 election, but Republicans lost — and Democrats gained — four seats in 2012, which enabled Democratic leader Tina Kotek to become speaker.
Oregon SenateRepublicans were mounting a strong bid to win their first majority in the Senate, or at least force a 15-15 tie, in two decades. They lost their majority in 2002, when Democrats gained a tie, and then Democrats won three seats for an outright majority in 2004. Democrats have kept it since then, although there were 16-14 splits between the parties from 2011 through 2014.
The Senate Leadership Fund raised more than $2 million to aid Republican candidates and attack Democrats.
The new lineup apparently will be 16 Democrats, 13 Republicans and one independent, Brian Boquist of Dallas, who left the Republican Party. This excludes the undecided District 20 seat, where Democratic Rep. Mark Meek of Gladstone held a slim lead in his challenge of Republican Sen. Bill Kennemer of Oregon City. Most of the district is in Clackamas County, where about half the ballots were yet to be counted.
Meek is a three-term state representative; Kennemer was seeking a full term to the seat he was appointed to in 2021 after Republican Alan Olsen of Canby moved out of state. Kennemer was first elected a senator in 1986, then as a Clackamas County commissioner in 1996, then as a state representative in 2008 before he left in 2018.
“These results should give renewed optimism to every person in our state fighting for the well-being of hard-working Oregonians,” said Senate Majority Leader Rob Wagner, D-Lake Oswego, who is expected to be a candidate for the Senate presidency. “Soon, we will turn our attention to the 2023 legislative session and continue our work to support a brighter future for every community in our state.”
Sixteen of the 30 Senate seats were up for election on Tuesday, Nov. 8, one for a two-year term in a redrawn District 18, which is now entirely within Washington County. Democratic Rep. Wlnsvey Campos of Aloha was elected; she will be up again in 2024 for a full term.
Sen. Bill Hansell, R-Athena, echoed Rep. Smith about the bittersweet outcome of the election. Hansell said Senate Republicans plan to caucus about the topic in a few days.
He also said the change in the Legislature is more than new lawmakers coming in; it means new people chairing committees. Some of those lawmakers might not be new to the Legislature, Hansell said, but they could be new to leadership.
Ten Democratic incumbents appear headed for reelection, plus Aaron Woods of Wilsonville, who won the redrawn District 13 seat.
Three Republicans will move from the House to open seats in the Senate: Daniel Bonham of The Dalles, succeeding Republican Chuck Thomsen of Hood River; Cedric Hayden of Fall Creek, succeeding Democrat Lee Beyer of Springfield; and Suzanne Weber of Tillamook, succeeding Democratic appointee Rachel Armitage of Warren in the seat that Democrat Betsy Johnson of Scappoose vacated in her losing nonaffiliated bid for governor.
Sen. Kim Thatcher of Keizer lost her District 13 seat in redistricting, but appeared to be winning her bid for the open District 11 seat vacated by Democrat Peter Courtney of Salem, the longest-serving legislator at 38 years and Senate president for a record 20 years.
— East Oregonian news editor Phil Wright contributed to this report.