SALEM, Oregon — Women have changed the political landscape this year from New York to Alaska, winning a flood of nominations to run for Congress and state legislatures. But in many ways, Oregon was already there. Women control the offices of governor and attorney general, and have more members in top state legislative posts than any other state.
“A former state legislator referred to us as ‘the estrogen caucus,’” Jennifer Williamson, the Democratic House majority leader, recalled.
If the label was meant to disparage, Ms. Williamson said women shrugged and turned it into a badge of honor. Fifty-four percent of Oregon’s House Democrats now are female, a rare majority in state capitols, where men still mostly rule.
But by being early to elect so many women, particularly Democrats, Oregon has also been early to skip ahead to a new chapter — and a new layer of complication.
Female elected officials in Oregon now have significant and lengthy track records in office, and they are being forced to defend those records this year. Notably, some of them are facing challenges over their stances on the very issues that have propelled calls for more female candidates around the country: sexual harassment and abortion.
Republicans, long out of power in the state, are arguing that liberal women leaders have pushed the state farther to the left on social issues, including abortion rights, than many Oregon women would prefer. At the same time, a long-simmering sexual harassment scandal has come to a boil in recent weeks in Salem, the state capital, raising a suggestion from some that women leaders may be no more effective at handling the issue than men.
“The culture in the State Capitol building is something that has been festering for decades,” said Jillian Schoene, co-executive director of Emerge Oregon, a group in Portland that recruits and trains women to run for office. “Culture change takes time,” she said. “But it’s also unfair to say that women are solely responsible for fixing it.”
These forces are playing out all through Oregon’s election landscape. In the race for governor, Knute Buehler, an orthopedic surgeon, state legislator and rare Republican who says he supports abortion rights, has staked his campaign on appealing to moderate female voters, especially in the suburbs of Portland. Mr. Buehler has repeatedly pressed an idea that Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat seeking a second term, has focused on social issues that play well in big liberal centers like Portland at the expense of core matters like education and the economy around the state.
Seeking to win over those same voters, Ms. Brown and her allies have pushed back in television ads, asserting that Mr. Buehler was not to be trusted, especially on abortion rights. The Oregon Legislature passed a far-reaching bill last year guaranteeing and expanding access to contraception, abortion and postpartum care. Ms. Brown signed the bill into law. Mr. Buehler, representing a House district in central Oregon, voted no.
Some Republican women, like Jessica Gomez, a business owner…