Longtime U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Springfield, and his challenger, Republican Alek Skarlatos of Roseburg, have proven they have strong support within their respective bases.
Each had one competitor in Tuesday’s primary, and each won more than four-fifths of the vote in his race. In raw numbers, DeFazio finished with 90,300 votes and Skarlatos with 66,641.
But Oregon has a closed primary system, which means only Democrats and Republicans were allowed to vote this time.
In November, a whole new group of voters will be at play.
A study of the numbers by The News-Review shows the path to victory in the battle for the House District 4 seat clearly runs through the unaffiliated voters.
There are more unaffiliated voters — voters who are not a member of any party — than there are Republicans in District 4. There are also more unaffiliated voters than there are Democrats.
The Oregon Secretary of State reports the most recent voter registration numbers, from April 2020, include 158,723 District 4 Republicans, 188,698 Democrats and a whopping 194,389 unaffiliated voters.
In fact, those 194,389 unaffiliated voters are a larger group than the 184,205 Democrats and Republicans combined who voted in Tuesday’s primary.
As more people register and some switch parties between now and the general election, the numbers in each party will shift.
But as it stands now, District 4 voters are 27.3% Republican, 32.5% Democrats and 33.5% unaffiliated.
It’s likely that whomever captures that unaffiliated vote will win the race.
So how will that vote swing?
In the past five elections, DeFazio has gone up against Republican Art Robinson. Each time, he defeated him, with wins ranging between 54.6% and 59.1% of the total vote. Robinson’s losses ranged between 37.6% and 43.7% of the vote.
Those figures, while they include voters in all parties and unaffiliated voters combined, suggest that DeFazio has been successful with unaffiliated voters in past races.
He also has plenty of campaign cash to woo this year’s unaffiliated voters.
But Skarlatos may be starting to catch up, having raised a bit more money than DeFazio in the first months of 2020.
The Washington, D.C.-based newspaper Roll Call reported the National Republican Congressional Committee had listed DeFazio as one of its “initial 2020 targets,” in the belief that the 4th District could be moving in their direction.
Skarlatos said DeFazio has moved too far to the left for District 4 voters.
“I think Peter DeFazio also hasn’t had to run a campaign like this before,” Skarlatos said in an interview Tuesday. “I mean, to be fair, the independents really didn’t have a home, and we’re going to win the middle on the common sense issues that most people care about.”
DeFazio has said he thinks Oregonians will see through the tactics of the National Republican Congressional Committee’s attempts to “manipulate this district.”
“Skarlatos believes that we should maintain and extend tax cuts for billionaires and corporations while working Oregonians are suffering and paying the price,” DeFazio said in a written statement Tuesday. “He vehemently opposes common-sense gun legislation, such as universal background checks, and recently declared that ‘gun control does not work.’”
Another critical issue, and one that could be a bit of a wild card, is turnout. This is a presidential election year, and that means turnout in November could well be double that of Tuesday’s primary. So an enthusiastic base is still important for each candidate.
Oregon’s primary tunout Tuesday was just 42%. In 2016, the last presidential election year, statewide turnout was 80%.
That was also the first year of the state’s Motor Voter registration, too, in which people obtaining or renewing their driver’s licenses were automatically registered to vote. They were registered unaffiliated unless they returned a card in the mail choosing a party.
In that year, there were 190,833 registered Democrats, 155,575 Republicans and 134,505 unaffiliated.
Unaffiliated voters can be more apathetic than party voters.
In 2016, they voted at a much lower rate, with 59.7% turning in a ballot, compared with 88% of Democrats and 89.3% of Republicans.