In the early days of this year, Val Hoyle had good reason to fear electoral wrath. Running for U.S. Congress in a district Democrats have held for 47 years, she had history on her shoulders. But failure seemed to loom.
Her opponent, Alek Skarlatos, a Donald Trump supporter who became a hero and celebrity after stopping a train terror attack in France, was raising $5.50 to each dollar she brought in. Republicans sensed opportunity for a break with the past in a West Coast liberal enclave shaken by waves of crime, homelessness and political violence, after its embrace of movements such as the campaign to defund police.
Ms. Hoyle, like Democrats around the country, braced for what lay ahead.
“Am I worried? Hell, yeah,” she said in February.
Months later, that anxiety has largely been displaced by a new confidence, founded in part by an enthusiasm among liberal voters newly galvanized to protect abortion rights. “I’m winning,” Ms. Hoyle told a small group of supporters on the Oregon coast who gathered recently for a pep talk before going out to knock on doors in the state’s fourth district.
Oregon has not typically been where the outcome of U.S. elections is determined. Six members of the state’s seven-person federal congressional delegation are Democrats. So is Governor Kate Brown, and the party holds supermajorities in both chambers of the state legislature.
But Ms. Brown has been the least popular governor in the U.S., according to polls, and the long-standing erosion of middle-class jobs in some parts of the state – as well as a fast-rising rate of violent crime in Portland – have pushed voters to seek an alternative.
That means Oregon has come to embody the political currents driving U.S. voters ahead of crucial midterm elections in November that will shape how easily the Joe Biden White House can continue to pursue its agenda.
Both parties see the state as fertile ground. Republicans have named the candidates in Oregon’s fourth, fifth and sixth Congressional districts “Young Guns” – a designation for particularly promising campaigns. Democrats have also brought national attention to those three districts.
Republicans need to add just five seats nationwide to overturn the Democrat House majority. The influential Cook Political Report calls one Oregon district a toss-up, while rating two others “lean Democratic,” a sign of vulnerability.
Justin Hwang, the Republican Party’s state chair, has “been telling everyone, you’re going to make history,” he said in an interview. “This is going to be a once in a lifetime chance, now or never.” Internal polling shows Republican candidates up by nine and 10 points in the fifth and sixth Congressional districts. (Other polls suggest more competitive contests.) Mr. Hwang sees “a pretty good chance to win” for Mr. Skarlatos in the fourth district, although that contest is widely seen as leaning toward Ms. Hoyle.
Mr. Hwang holds hope, too, that Republicans can break the Democrat lock on the state government.
The Republican party has dispatched millions of dollars to races in Oregon, with House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy travelling to the state in late August to proclaim: “You want to feel safe in your streets and we have candidates who believe in safety.”
Days after Mr. McCarthy’s visit, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat, also arrived with a promise that “Democrats intend to hold the House.”
History and voter unhappiness have made that a tough assignment.
In the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump came within a few hundred votes of beating Hillary Clinton in the fourth district. Two years ago, in a congressional race, Mr. Skarlatos lost out to Peter DeFazio, who has held the seat since 1987, by just five percentage points.
This year, prospects look even better for Republicans, driven by a perception that Democrats have presided over an economy plagued by inflation and, in Oregon, a state whose largest city has endured a crime spike so severe its mayor declared an emergency this summer. Mr. DeFazio is not running again, and historically, the party in power in Washington loses ground during midterm elections.
Oregon’s Republicans have been energized as never before, said Rebecca Tweed, a Republican strategist in the state.
Republicans “really have an opportunity to reduce the Democratic stronghold,” she said.
For Oregonians, “all the problems they’re dealing with today are getting exponentially worse: homelessness, crime, cost of living. And I don’t think the Democrats are going to be able to run away from that,” said Dru Draper, political director for a state Republican political action committee.
But here, like elsewhere, the Supreme Court provided a jolt when it overturned the constitutional right to abortion. In January, 1 per cent of Oregon Democrats listed abortion as their most important election issue, according to polling by DHM Research – ranking the issue dead last among priorities.
By August, after the Supreme Court decision, 16 per cent listed it as their top priority. Views among conservative and centrist voters were less changed. But previously undecided Democrat voters “have come home” to their party, said John Horvick, a senior vice-president at DHM. The Guttmacher Institute, a research and policy organization, ranks Oregon as “most protective” of abortion rights – more so than states like California and Washington.
“Abortion has changed the dynamics,” Mr. Horvick said.
Mr. Trump hasn’t helped Republicans seeking other offices, either, after drawing weeks of attention for his handling of classified documents. The former president is widely disliked in Oregon, even among some Republicans. “You want to be supportive – but you just really don’t like the guy,” said Tom Kress, a former Green Beret who is a County Commissioner in heavily Republican Douglas County.
Mr. Kress nonetheless gave his name to endorse Mr. Skarlatos, who has questioned whether climate change is the cause of devastating wildfires that have plagued Oregon – saying blame lies with poor forest management – and criticized the state’s pandemic measures.
His campaign, backed by the law enforcement community, has sought to portray him as an agent of change, bringing balance to the “extreme” policies of Democrats. Mr. Skarlatos, who declined an interview request, once offered to split his donations with Mr. Trump and has received support from key allies of the former president, including Mr. McCarthy and Sen. Ted Cruz. Today, his website contains only a single mention of Mr. Trump.
The fourth district is split between rural areas that rival Wyoming for Republican support and two liberal university towns, Corvallis and Eugene. A change to the district boundaries inclined it even further toward the Democrats.
But “the sentiment is: boy we need some changes. And those changes is what Alek can be able to bring,” said Elin Miller, who helped co-ordinate an earlier election campaign for Mr. Skarlatos.
For Democrats, however, Mr. Skarlatos’s past support for overturning constitutional abortion rights has provided fodder for pointed attack ads, including one that calls him “Backed by Extremists.”
Ms. Hoyle, his opponent, boasts a long family pedigree on abortion, growing up with a mother who sought legalization before Roe v. Wade. The overturn of that decision “flipped the switch and motivated people,” she said in an interview.
She holds out hope that Democrats can hold onto seats in a critical state – and perhaps even their position of power in Washington. At campaign events, she says the path to a national Democratic majority leads through Oregon. Worry about abortion, she says, has brought change, motivating women to register to vote and leading to notable recent Republican ballot losses in Alaska and Kansas.
“It is a tough year for Democrats. It still is,” she said. But “there is a path. And there was not a path before.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article included an incorrect number of Democrats in the state's federal congressional delegation.