Republican Cliff Bentz of Ontario was winning by a wide margin in the race for the open congressional seat representing Central and Eastern Oregon, voting returns showed Tuesday.
Early returns in the 2nd Congressional District showed Bentz with 58% of the vote against 39% for Democrat Alex Spenser of Klamath Falls. Libertarian Robert Werch of Grants Pass had 3%.
"We're leading — I have been cautiously optimistic from the start," Bentz said from his home in Ontario. "I've had a good reception in all 20 counties of the district."
Bentz would be the only Republican among the two U.S. Senators and five U.S. House members representing Oregon. He said he had worked with U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley and Rep. Susan Bonamici, D-Beaverton when they were all in the Legislature together. He's worked with U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden on state issues as well.
Bentz said he'll seek a bipartisan approach to the state's efforts to handle the COVID-19 virus and an economic recovery from the pandemic's impact. The delegation can also work on wildfire recovery — about 2,400 homes were destroyed in Talent and Phoenix, near Ashland, part of the district. He also hopes to cooperate on a transportation legislation.
"I am happy to work with all of them," Bentz said.
Bentz, 68, will retain a seat the GOP has held for 40 years. Retiring U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River, has represented the district since 1999. The district has 50,000 more registered Republicans than Democrats. Walden usually won re-election with over 60 percent of the vote. Democrats hold the other four U.S. House seats, along with both U.S. Senate seats.
Given the district's heavy Republican tilt, Bentz was favored to win the seat after his victory in the May 19 Republican primary. Bentz won 31% in a field of 10 candidates that included former Rep. Knute Buehler, R-Bend, and former Sen. Jason Atkinson, R-Ashland.
CD2 sprawls across nearly 70,000 square miles, including all of the state east of the Cascades and a swath in the southwest that goes as far west as Grants Pass. It includes all or part of 20 of Oregon's 36 counties. Other cities in the district include Bend, Redmond, Pendleton, Medford, Ashland and Grants Pass.
Bentz was born in Salem but spent much of his childhood in Harney County. He attended Regis High School, a Catholic school, in Stayton. Bentz has a B.A. in history from what is now Eastern Oregon University in La Grande, and a law degree from Lewis & Clark Law School in Portland. Bentz has worked at the Ontario law firm of Yturri Rose for 40 years, rising to become a senior partner.
Bentz was appointed to the House District 60 seat in 2008, then won re-election four times. Bentz was a key GOP negotiator on the Legislature's bipartisan $5.3 billion transportation package approved in 2017. In 2018, Bentz was appointed to Senate District 30.
During the campaign, Bentz cast himself as a strong supporter of President Donald Trump, saying he supported Trump's proposed wall at the Mexican border and attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act. He is opposed to abortion and favors revision of environmental laws to allow for greater land use.
In September, Bentz's wife, Lindsay, tested positive for COVID-19. Bentz said she had recovered. Though he tested negative, Bentz spent 14 days in quarantine.
Bentz says Trump's statements on the COVID-19 pandemic have been "awkward," but said he thinks Trump has been unfairly blamed for not doing enough to stem the virus, which has killed 230,000 Americans, including nearly 700 in Oregon.
The 117th Congress will be sworn-in on Jan. 3, 2021 at noon. Congressional districts will be reapportioned before the 2022 election, but CD2 is expected to remain a Republican stronghold.