PORTLAND, Ore. — East of the Cascades, Oregon is known for being majority red. But in Central Oregon, a liberal tide in Bend may be shifting politics blue.
With state Democrats funneling money to Bend candidates, the party managed to flip a state house seat, break up a GOP-dominated county commission and elect a progressive slate of city council candidates.
Democrat Jason Kropf flips Oregon House seat
Democrats have long eyed the state legislature seats in Bend, which have remained in Republican control despite a growing Democrat population. On Tuesday, Democrat Jason Kropf decisively ousted Republican incumbent Cheri Helt in the race for Bend’s 54th district house seat.
The race was one of the most expensive legislative contests in the state this year. Helt raised about $1 million to Kropf’s $529,000.
Despite Kropf's lower spending, Secretary of State numbers show him with 60.09% of the vote to Helt’s 38.87%. Helt will leave the office after one term in the House, where she has been the most moderate Republican.
"Obviously, I’m disappointed by the outcome and what it says about the polarized and partisan nature of our politics, nationally and here in Oregon," Helt wrote on Facebook.
Kropf thanked Helt for a "hardfought campaign and for her years of public service to our community."
Republicans have held the 54th district since 2010 despite growing Democratic voter registration in Bend. There are more than 9,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans in the 54th district, according to Deschutes County records. This gap has only widened with Bend’s population growth since 2016, when there were only about 5,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans.
But the picture looks much different in the neighboring 53th district, where political mapmakers concentrated Bend’s Republican-heavy suburbs and nearby towns. There are more than 3,000 more Republicans in this district than Democrats.
On Tuesday, Republican incumbent Jack Zika of the 53th district held his seat against Democratic challenger Emerson Levy by a nearly 15-point margin.
And in Oregon Senate District 27, which includes Bend, Redmond, Sunriver and Tumalo, county numbers show Republican incumbent Tim Knopp with a slight lead over Democratic challenger Eileen Kiely. The race is still too close to call, with Knopp up by about 1,500 votes — less than 2% of total votes.
“As many expected, we find ourselves in an incredibly close race for Senate District 27,” Knopp said in a statement. “Regardless of the outcome of this election, we will respect the results. Eileen Kiely has proven herself to be a tough competitor.”
This race was also among the most costly in the state, with Knopp raising over $1 million to Keiley’s $679,000.
Democrats had hoped to secure Senate District 27, among others, to prevent further legislature disruptions from Republican walkouts. In Oregon, quorum rules say that two-thirds of legislators must be present in either the House or Senate to conduct business.
Democrats would have had to secure 20 senate seats and 40 house seats to meet this two-thirds mark. While the Democrats kept their supermajorities in this election, they only outnumber Republicans 18-12 in the Senate and 37-23 in the House, meaning they did not secure enough seats to prevent further walkouts.
Democrat Phil Chang breaks up GOP-dominated county commission
In the race fondly referred to as the "Battle of the Phils," Democrat Phil Chang won a decisive victory over Republican incumbent Phil Henderson in the Deschutes County Commissioner race.
Chang, a natural resource and renewable energy consultant, campaigned on improving mental health services, improving affordable housing and promoting smart urban growth. Henderson, a homebuilder and lawyer, campaigned on supporting affordable housing and development, and lowering taxes.
Deschutes County results show Chang with nearly 52.28% of the vote to Henderson’s 47.63%. Chang will likely be the first Democrat to serve on the commission since Henderson won in 2016.
"The biggest hurdle for this race was helping people understand what the county commission is, and how it affects them," Chang wrote in a statement to supporters.
Chang attributes his win to raising awareness about the importance of county government.
Henderson has not issued a statement about the results.
Bend elects progressive slate of city council candidates
In city council races, Bend elected four progessive, Democrat-endorsed candidates, making it the most diverse council in city history. This will be the first female majority on the council — with five women to one man — and the first time a person of color and openly queer person has had a seat.
The newly-elected councilors — Melanie Kebler, Anthony Broadman, Megan Perkins and Rita Schenkelberg — campaigned together to push for better representation in Bend, solutions for working families and safe transportation, among other issues.
In Position No. 1, Kebler, a victims rights attorney, secured about 60% of the vote over incumbent Justin Livingston, who held 39.5%. Kebler spent about half of what Livingston did on the campaign.
She centered her campaign around social equity, affordable housing, climate change and more.
"It’s time for bold, positive solutions to Bend’s challenges," Kebler wrote on Facebook. "I’m ready to get to work."
Broadman, an indigenous rights attorney, won in a landslide over opponent August Paul Johnson, with about 79% of the votes. Broadman’s recent campaign filings say he spent about $44,000, with the largest single donor being the Central Oregon Realtors Association PAC.
Broadman ran on a campaign based on "progress and pragmatism."
Following his victory, Broadman wrote on Facebook that Bendites clearly want a "safe, connected transportation system", "a place that working families can afford to live" and a city that "welcomes every person in it" and "partners with workers and small businesses as we emerge from the COVID pandemic."
Perkins, the founder of the nonprofit Embrace Bend, secured Position No. 3 with about 52% of the vote. She defeated incumbent Chris Piper, who held roughly 39% of the vote.
Perkins’ campaign was mainly funded by individual donations, making up about $39,000 to Piper’s $120,000. Perkins plans to center people and issues typically left out of the political process, prioritizing inclusion, accessibility and economic equity.
"I’m honored to represent all voices of Bend, especially those that have been disenfranchised and overlooked," Perkins wrote on Facebook.
In Position No. 4, Rita Schenkelberg, a mental health counselor, will replace councilor Bruce Abernethy, who did not seek reelection. Schenkelberg won about 57% of the vote over her closest challenger, Michael Hughes, who secured roughly 32%.
Schenkelberg raised roughly $34,000 through mostly individual donations, and both the Kate Brown Committee and the Communities of Color for a Just Oregon PAC contributed to her campaign.
Campaigning under the slogan "representation matters," Schenkelberg identifies as a queer person of color. She promised to advocate for affordable housing, more transportation options and the community action climate plan in Bend.
Schenkelberg wrote on Facebook, "I am so grateful and this is only the beginning."