ballot box

Meg Phelps places her ballot in the drop box at the Deschutes County Road Department in Bend.

Oregon was smashing records for early voting on Monday, even as state officials grappled with how to handle any voter intimidation in the final hours of the election and planned for possible riots in Portland after the polls close at 8 p.m. Tuesday.

Oregon's vote-by-mail system is expected to result in relatively quick results tomorrow night. But the sharp partisan divide in the nation, shifting voting rules and President Donald Trump's reluctance to promise a peaceful transition if he loses the election have ramped up the stress in a country already on edge.

"The pandemic, wildfires and political atmosphere have boosted fear and anxiety,” Gov. Kate Brown said Monday.

Brown made the comment at a press conference at which she announced a plan to use the Oregon State Police and Multnomah County Sheriff's Office in Portland starting Monday night. The Oregon National Guard was ordered to put soldiers trained in crowd control on alert that they might be deployed if necessary.

National voting rights and militia monitoring groups called for an investigation of reports that gun-carrying Trump supporters at a rally at Lively Park in Springfield harassed people trying to use a ballot drop-box in the parking lot. 

The spectre of armed groups at ballot boxes or possibly violent confrontations in Portland overshadowed the basic political questions that will be decided with the voting that ends Tuesday.

Nearly two out of three ballots are already cast

The Oregon Secretary of State's office reported Monday that 66.8% of eligible voters have turned in ballots as of Monday morning. That's up from 61.7% the day before the 2016 presidential election.

Benton County continued to lead returns, with 74.7%. The top five are rounded out by Grant (72.9%) Tillamook (71.9%), Clackamas (71.9%) and Deschutes (71.5%).

Only three of the state's 36 counties reported under 60% turnout on Monday: Malheur (55.9%), Umatilla (56.8%) and Josephine (57.1). Rounding out the bottom five are Jefferson (60.5%), Columbia and Klamath (both at 62.1%).

Republicans have almost closed the gap on Democrats for percentage of returned ballots. As of Monday, 79.2% of Democrats have voted vs. 73.5% of Republicans. The 5.7 point gap is down from more than 12% in the first days of ballot return counts.

As soon as the first returns start coming in, there will be clues on how races might end. Where to look:

Oregon is a lock to vote for Biden

Oregon last voted for the Republican presidential candidate in 1984, backing Ronald Reagan's successful re-election bid. Since then, Oregon has gone to the Democrat, win or lose. Oregon backed Bill Clinton twice and Barack Obama twice in their winning campaigns. But Michael Dukakis, Al Gore, John Kerry and Hillary Clinton won Oregon too.

A small window in Oregon indicating how the nationwide presidential vote might go can be found in the far northwest corner of Oregon. Tillamook and Columbia counties are the only two Oregon counties among just over 200 nationwide that voted for Obama in 2008 and 2012, then flipped for Trump in 2016. The top-of-the-ticket results in those counties will be posted on the Oregon Secretary of State's election night website. They are odds-on the best local barometer on which way the national political winds.

Secretary of State - A rare statewide race

Democrats are considered prohibitive favorites to win re-election in races for the U.S. Senate and state treasurer and attorney general. That's left both Democrats and Republicans to focus on the Secretary of State's race.

Sen. Kim Thatcher, R-Keizer, is seeking to replicate the Republicans' upset victory in the 2016 race for Secretary of State. She faces Sen. Shemia Fagan, D-Portland.

The outcome will hinge on whether the voting patterns look like 2016 or 2012. Votes coming in from Clackamas, Washington and Marion counties will be a big part of which way the race goes.

In 2016, Dennis Richardson became the first Republican elected Secretary of State since 1980, defeating Democrat Brad Avakian by a margin of 48% to 42%. In 2012, Democrat Kate Brown defeated Republican Knute Buehler of Bend by 51% to 43% of the vote.

Brown won heavily Democratic Washington County by about 19,000 votes in 2012, while Avakian won it by just over 5,700 votes. Richardson won Republican-tilting Clackamas by 24,000 votes in 2016 while Buehler won it by 2,400 votes. Marion County was the largest county to flip between the two elections. Richardson won Marion County by just over 20,500 votes. Brown won Marion County by just under 1,000 votes. 

Congress - GOP wants to end DeFazio's epic tenure

Of the five congressional seats on the ballot, the status quo of four Democrats and one Republican is the most likely outcome. Republicans are pushing hard to beat U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Springfield in the 4th Congressional District. The Republican is Alek Skarlatos of Roseburg, one of the men who stopped a 2015 terrorist attack on a train from Amsterdam to Paris. DeFazio's district is considered politically "Even" in ideology according to the Cook Political Report, a voting analysis website. But DeFazio has won every race since 1986.

The key may well be the levels of turnout in liberal areas such as Eugene and Corvallis that have the largest populations vs. the Republican-leaning areas of the district south of the Willamette Valley.

A look at voter turnout has to be good news for DeFazio. Benton County, which includes Corvallis, has the highest rates of ballot return of any county in the state, with just under 75%. Lane County - which includes Eugene - is at 67.2 percent. In the south, Curry County is at 70.4%. But other areas are lagging. Skarlatos' home, Douglas County, is at 65.7%, Coos County is at 63.4%. Linn County, a northern area with significant Republican strongholds, is at 63.3%. Whether those gaps close or widen could tell if Skarlatos has a shot.

House - Two million dollars for two years

If you want to know which races for the Legislature are key to each party's political gameplan, just follow the money. 

At least three House races are so close that the candidates are closing in on or over combined spending of $2 million for the seats, which will be up for election again in just two years.

Democrats currently hold a 38-22 majority that allows them to pass tax and other financial bills without Republican help. Then-House Minority Leader Carl Wilson, R-Grants Pass, said his small caucus weren’t “even speedbumps” against the Democrats.

Republicans would like to roll those numbers back, while Democrats dream of a historic first: Winning 40 seats that would give them the ability to have a quorum to vote on bills without Republicans. All but two GOP lawmakers walked out last winter to deny quorums to consider a carbon cap-and-trade bill. The move effectively killed what remained of the session, with several other major bills still pending.

One of the most expensive races involves the lone House Republican to stay in Salem during the walkout: Rep. Cheri Helt, R-Bend. She faces Democrat Jason Kropf, a Deschutes County deputy district attorney. Republicans have held the seat since 2008 despite a Democratic voter registration edge that has grown to 8,752.

State campaign finance records show that through Oct. 23, Helt has raised more than $999,000. Kropf has raised $512,000. Candidates have up to seven days to report campaign transactions. The true cost of the race won't be known until after the vote is announced. 

The Astorian newspaper reported last week that a House seat in Clatsop County has already hit the $2.1 million mark. The seat is open after Rep. Tiffany Mitchell, D-Astoria, decided not to run for re-election after one term. Democrat business owner Debbie Boothe-Schmidt of Astoria has raised $1.3 million, while Tillamook Mayor Suzanne Weber, the Republican nominee, has topped $900,000.

Republicans are trying to reclaim three Portland-are House seats they lost in 2018. Rep. Rachel Prusak, D-Tualatin, Rep. Courtney Neron, D-Aloha, and Rep. Anna Williams, D-Hood River are running for second terms.

Some of the heaviest spending is in Williams' district. Former Portland police officer Jeff Helfrich had been appointed to the seat in 2018, but lost the election to Williams. Financially, the race is nearly a dead heat, with Helfrich raising $858,000 and Williams $838,000.

Republicans also see opportunity in Coos Bay, where Rep. Caddy McKeown retired, leaving an open seat. The area has been a stronghold for protesters of the Timber Unity coalition against the carbon emissions tax and Democratic bills that take on gun control. There's bruises on both sides from the long fight over a proposed liquid natural gas terminal in Coos Bay.

Senate's slender split

Democrats have a 18-12 majority in the Senate, with 16 seats on the ballot on Tuesday. Republican senators have walked out of the two most recent sessions to deny a quorum on the carbon cap bill. In 2019, they returned at the last minute for a two-day blitz of passing bills. But in 2020, they left again and the session ended with several bills dying along with the carbon cap. Democrats would need to pick up two seats to get to 20 in order to have a quorum without needing Republican defectors.

Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, walked out in 2019, but was the only GOP senator to stay in Salem in 2020. Like Helt, he is a Republican in an increasingly Democratic district. The Democratic voter registration edge in his district has increased from 1,100 when Knopp last ran in 2016 to 5,500 today. He's facing retired Daimler executive Eileen Kiely of Sunriver, who is also the secretary of the Democratic Party of Oregon.

The campaign is shaping up to be the most expensive Senate race of 2020. Knopp has raised $1.3 million to Kiely's $643,000. A possible sign of concern for Knopp is that with one day to go, Democrats in Deschutes County have returned 84% of eligible ballots vs 77.5% of Republicans.

Republicans are going full bore to win the Senate seat vacated by Sen. Arnie Roblan, D-Coos Bay. Roblan won in 2016 by just 349 votes in 2016, when Trump was at the top of the ticket. Roblan decided to retire, leaving the seat open. On paper, Democrats have a 12% voter registration edge. But the area has been a stronghold for the Timber Unity movement. Democrats are fielding Melissa Cribbins, a Coos County commissioner. She faces the Republican, Lincoln City Mayor Dick Anderson. Cribbins has raised just under $1.2 million, while Anderson has taken in $925,000. 

Blue Wall

Oregon is not alone in having last gone Republican in 1984. The same is true for Washington, New York, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Hawaii. The longest loyalty goes to Minnesota, which hasn't voted for a Republican since Richard Nixon's landslide re-election in 1972 the longest streak of any state for voting Democratic. The last Republican to win was Richard Nixon in his landslide re-election in 1972. Total electoral votes of states voting Democratic since 1984: 80.

Red Wall

Nine states have longer streaks of voting Republican. The 1964 landslide for Lyndon Johnson is the last time Nebraska, Oklahoma, Kansas, Utah, Idaho, Alaska, South Dakota, North Dakota, and Wyoming voted for the Democrat in a presidential race. The largest state with the longest current Republican voting streak is Texas, which hasn't voted for a Democrat since it went for Jimmy Carter in 1976. Total electoral votes of states voting Republican since 1984: 101.

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