A 3,000-plus crowd of students and community members at the University of Oregon’s Erb Memorial Union Amphitheater screams as Sen. Bernie Sanders walks on stage. He waves to the crowd as John Lennon’s “Power to the People” plays in the background.
But Sanders isn’t in Lane County for a presidential bid, like he was in 2016. This time, he’s one of several high profile Democrats — including President Joe Biden — who have recently traveled to Oregon to stump for the tight gubernatorial and congressional races in the Nov. 8 midterm election.
Sanders is one of the most popular Democrats in the country with young voters and progressives. During his time in the Senate, as well as his bids for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016 and 2020, he’s called for creating universal health care, taxing the rich and investing in climate action. And he stopped in Oregon on an eight-state trip to rally young and progressive voters to support Democrats in the midterm elections.
Polls show that Republicans are likely to take the House of Representatives, and with three congressional seats in Oregon without an incumbent, leaders from both parties have appeared at rallies and events. Oregon could play a role in influencing which party is in control of the U.S. House. This state’s tight gubernatorial race also means Oregon could see its first Republican governor in decades.
Democrats are vying to maintain majorities in Congress and the governor’s office to address climate change, gun safety, corporate accountability and more. Democratic nominee for the 4th Congressional District Val Hoyle is trying to succeed Peter DeFazio, who’s retiring after 18 terms in Congress, and she says that the two share similar values and policy interests.
Oregon Democrat Tina Kotek is running for governor, an office that Republicans may have in their grasp because of a three-way race that could split the Democratic Party vote.
Both candidates, facing tight races, have seen big household-name Democrats like Sanders as a way to generate enthusiasm, especially with the youth vote. “This election matters for their future, whether it’s climate, choice or gun safety,” Kotek tells Eugene Weekly. “These are really core issues for younger voters.”
Before Sanders took the stage at the Oct. 27 rally, DeFazio told the crowd to just “vote, goddammit.”
“Just one of you out there who forgets to drop your ballot, you might make the difference in that race,” DeFazio said.
The first midterm after a change in the White House often results in the minority gaining at least one chamber of Congress; it’s a pattern that has held true in the post-World War II era, except in a few instances, such as the midterms immediately after the Sept. 11 attacks.
One seat in Oregon that Democrats are working to hold on to is the one that DeFazio held for decades. It’s a race where DeFazio is working with Hoyle to ensure his supporters back her while national Republicans back Alek Skarlatos.
Hoyle tells EW that she and DeFazio have similar political values, and that DeFazio has helped her as she campaigns against the opponent he defeated in 2020. “He has been incredible in helping me understand how to navigate federal versus state issues, and letting people in D.C. know that this is an important, key race and that I’m the right person,” Hoyle says. “It’s important for him to have somebody who’s actually qualified.”
Hoyle says she has many friends running for office throughout the country, and they don’t have that support, which makes a difference in a campaign.
DeFazio’s legislative priorities have focused on transportation and infrastructure — and he’s ending his career as chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Hoyle says she’ll focus on transportation and infrastructure if elected, especially advocating for the Coos Bay container shipping port, which will reduce the supply chain congestion on the West Coast by 10 to 12 percent.
Hoyle says she’ll also push Congress to consider the windfall profits tax on fossil fuel companies. “Everyone is looking at gas prices,” she says. “But what they’re not noting is that every single one of these gas and oil companies has increased profits and uses profits to buy stocks back, as opposed to lowering prices at the pump.”
Addressing gas prices by holding fossil fuel corporations accountable is something that won’t happen under a Republican-majority government, Hoyle says. She says the Republican Party is planning to privatize Social Security and Medicare. And Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina has already introduced a bill that would create a 15-week national abortion ban.
The pathway for the Democratic Party to maintain its majority in the House of Representatives is through Oregon, Hoyle says. Growing up in New Hampshire, where politicians flock in hopes of kickstarting presidential bids, she says she’s used to living in a place that gets a lot of attention.
Polls suggest that two out of Oregon’s six congressional races are tight — incumbent Reps. Earl Blumenauer, Suzanne Bonamici and Cliff Bentz seem sure to win their seats. According to nonpartisan think tank The Cook Political Report, only Hoyle’s race leans Democratic and Andrea Salinas is slightly favored despite being a toss up.
But Republicans could grab the Congressional District 5 seat, which Jamie McLeod-Skinner unseated Democratic incumbent Rep. Kurt Schrader in the May primary. On Nov. 1, The Cook Political Report, changed its view on the race from toss-up to lean Republican. The race changed in favor of Lori Chavez-DeRemer because the think tank said national Republican ads purchased by Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s Congressional Leadership Fund have made an impact.
According to data from the Federal Election Commission, Skarlatos has outraised Hoyle. He’s brought in $4 million compared to Hoyle’s $2.2 million. Skarlatos has received sizable contributions from national Republican organizations, such as about $28,000 from Take Back the House GOP PAC, $16,833 from the National Republican Congressional Committee and $10,000 from Congressional Leadership Fund.
Although Skarlatos is trying to paint himself as a moderate by running ads of him posing with President Barack Obama, Hoyle says that two years ago he was running as a MAGA Republican. “McCarthy isn’t paying to buy a moderate,” she says. “Kevin McCarthy is paying to buy a lap dog, who’s going to vote the party line.”
About half of Hoyle’s contributions come from political action committees, such as labor union organizations, and the most of the other half are individual contributions. She’s received a $10,000 total contribution from PACs associated with Teamsters United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners, as well as the Save Democracy PAC and DeFazio’s political campaign. She’s also received $10,000 from James Fuiten of Hillsboro, owner of Metro West Ambulance, who’s also supported other Oregon Democratic candidates for Congress, including Schrader.
But Hoyle also received public support at the Oct. 27 rally from Sanders. The endorsement from Sanders, who’s beloved by progressives for his push for “Medicare for All” and calls to hold corporations accountable, is a strong reminder about her values to progressive voters in the wake of the Green Oregon PAC’s three mailers that it sent voters in the past few weeks, she says.
“He was coming down because he wanted to make it clear that there was just one person he supports,” she adds.
National Politicians Stumping in Oregon’s Governor’s Race
Sanders wasn’t in Eugene just to support Hoyle. He rallied for Kotek, who’s in the toss up gubernatorial race for governor in Eugene, as well as in Portland later in the day.
Of the 36 U.S. gubernatorial races, Oregon’s is remarkable because of unaffiliated candidate Betsy Johnson, who could split the Democratic Party vote, leading to a governor winning the race with less than 40 percent of the vote. With such a tight race, it’s not just raining money — national political figures are pouring in to support the two major party candidates.
“They understand what’s at stake,” Kotek says of national Democrats traveling to Oregon. “They also understand that my values are in line with where Oregonians are, and they are more than happy to come and make sure people know what’s at stake in the election.”
The Democratic Governors Association, which has contributed $6.6 million to Kotek’s campaign, helps bring in national political leaders to stump for the congressional and gubernatorial races, Kotek tells EW. Oregon campaigns have had several big names show up, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren, President Biden, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Sanders. Those appearances, Kotek says, have generated a lot of enthusiasm.
And former President Barack Obama has hit the virtual campaign for Democrats throughout the U.S. He sent 30-second video endorsements to candidates in several close races, including Kotek, who says that she’s thrilled to have his endorsement. “He’s delivering the right message,” she says. “I’m a fixer — let’s get it done.”
Kotek’s campaign has been pushing the endorsement video as an advertisement on Facebook and Instagram. According to the Meta Ad Library, which publishes data on its ads, older users engage with ads, but the Obama video has mostly been seen by voters ages 18 to 35.
Democrats aren’t the only ones sending in support. Drazan has received $7 million from the Republican Governors Association. And she’s had big-name Republicans campaigning alongside her, including former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and RNC co-chair Tommy Hicks, who said on Twitter they were going door-to-door with her.
Drazan also had Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin speak at an Oct. 19 rally. Youngkin, Virginia’s first Republican elected to a statewide office since 2009, told Drazan’s supporters that 2022 is their “moment to take back your state, take back your schools, take back your law enforcement and make a statement that just like in Virginia will be heard around the world,” according to reporting by the Oregon Capital Chronicle.
Kotek says that the Republican support for Drazan comes from political figures who don’t share similar values with Oregonians, citing Christie’s affiliation with the SBA Pro-Life advocacy group and Youngkin’s advocacy for right-wing policy, such as targeting so-called critical race theory in K-12 education.
After the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs ruling, which overturned access to abortion as a constitutional right, Kotek says that who’s in charge of the Legislature and governor’s office is now more important with reproductive rights. “I’m a pro-choice champion. I believe in access to health care,” she says, adding that Drazan would take the state backward on abortion access.
And Drazan’s plans on addressing homelessness are weak, which speaks to how unprepared she is to serve as governor, Kotek says. “This isn’t a solely public safety issue,” she adds. “This is a mental health issue. This is making sure you’re providing services. This is about building housing. You got to do the whole thing.”
The Young Vote
During Sanders’ Eugene visit, he — and the other speakers — hammered the message of young people voting. Wyden said voters older than 65 have a 20 percent higher voting turnout than those 18 to 35 years old, and Sanders accentuated the importance of young people voting.
Before the Sanders events, Kotek says young voters in their late teens, 20s and 30s were already enthusiastic, but his appearance magnified it. She recalls talking to a voter whose young niece is enthusiastic about voting in her first election despite not being a politically engaged person. “This is really a consequential election,” Kotek says. “That’s the kind of response we need to see, and I think we’ll have a lot of success in turning out younger voters because they know what’s at stake — it’s their future.”
Young voters, ages 18 through 29, have long underperformed in participation, but recent polls show that they’re voting in larger numbers. According to an April 2022 national poll released by the Institute of Politics at Harvard Kennedy School, 36 percent of young voters said they would vote, 55 percent of which would vote for Democrats. The results suggest a similar turnout to the 2018 midterm elections.
At the Oct. 27 rally, Sanders was blunt about the importance of the 2022 midterms. He said the future of the country — and people’s lives — depend on Democrats maintaining control of Congress and the Oregon governor’s office.
“If we do not get our act together and have the guts to take on the greed of the fossil fuel industry, the planet my generation is leaving to you and your kids will be increasingly uninhabitable and unhealthy,” Sanders said. “And that is not acceptable.”