10 Nov

In a red tide, Oregon sends out a message from a blue island

Once there was a little blue island.

In the midst of the vast national red wave that was the 2014 election, the little blue atoll overwhelmingly re-elected its Democratic senator despite $3 million in TV spending by the Koch brothers, was the only state in the country to increase Democratic control in both houses of its legislature and voted to legalize marijuana.

That last part might explain any cloud that seems to obscure the island.

The red tide that swept across the entire country Tuesday broke at the borders of Oregon. On the island, no Democratic incumbents were defeated, Sen. Jeff Merkley and Gov. John Kitzhaber and four Democratic congressmen were handily re-elected, and the party picked up one seat in the state House and at least one in the state Senate. It wasn’t a huge legislative increase – except that virtually everyplace else, Democratic legislators (and majorities) were being hauled out to the recycling bin.

Since 1992, Oregon, Washington and California have been a West Coast Democratic firewall, with the neighbor states even a bit bluer than the beaver. But this year, Washington Republicans gained a direct majority in the state Senate, and California Democrats lost their legislative supermajority, with half a dozen blue congressional seats hanging on absentee ballots.

Possibly Oregon was just too focused on Duck football and autumn beers to notice the national trend.

There were, of course, particular reasons for this year’s Oregon returns. A year ago, when Kitzhaber appeared untouchable, Dennis Richardson became the Republican nominee almost by default; after the governor’s huge polling lead dwindled following the Cylvia Hayes stories, it seemed that either of the previous two GOP nominees might have actually won. In the Senate race, Monica Wehby imploded early, and the doctor’s waiting room cleared out; about 150,000 Oregonians who voted for Richardson couldn’t bring themselves to back Wehby.

But there some are deeper distinctions between Oregon and other electorates. Following his victory press conference Wednesday morning – itself an unusual event for a Democratic Senate candidate this year – Merkley suggested one key. While all Americans were concerned about jobs, he noted, Oregonians were concerned “that we not conduct a war between the environment and the economy. That’s not felt everywhere.”

Returns suggested another difference. In a midterm election where national turnout looks to be the lowest since 1942 – when a lot of Americans found themselves out of town – and there seemed a particular drop-off in Democratic-tending groups, Oregon voters turned out relatively well. California saw its eligible voter turnout drop by more than 15 percent from the last midterm election in 2010, and Washington by more than 11 percent. Oregon’s drop was only 5 percent.

More important, Oregon’s Democratic electorate is not the same as in many states; it’s one of the few places where Obama has twice won among white voters. What’s changed Oregon from the Republican dominance of two and three decades ago to its current oceanic blueness is different from the coalition the Democrats are trying to put together in North Carolina.

“The change is the post-industrial economy,” argues Professor Jim Moore of Pacific University. “High-value manufacturing requires a highly educated workforce, and they bring their politics from the college towns and big cities where they used to be.”

Like everything else in Oregon politics, the change is most dramatic and crucial in fast-growing Washington County, the state’s high-tech center. After the 1994 election, when the Republicans took over the Oregon legislature – so long ago that it was the first time John Kitzhaber was elected governor – the entire county legislative delegation was Republican. As of Thursday afternoon, the last surviving Washington County Republican in Salem, Sen. Bruce Starr of Hillsboro, was clinging to a 64-vote lead over his Democratic challenger.

Clearly, the shift owes something to Washington County’s exploding diversity. But as Moore suggests, the change in politics has a lot to do with the change in the county’s economy – a change that he can also see happening in Clackamas, Jackson and Deschutes counties.

But Moore doesn’t see Oregon as an island. He thinks Oregon’s changes are similar to shifts in California, and that together we make a progressive peninsula.

Beyond Republican difficulties in finding strong candidates – sometimes in finding any candidates – for statewide office, this year’s election shows a deep change in Oregon’s politics and economy that tilts the state Democratic, and enabled it to stand against a national Republican landslide.

Of course, for any politician, nothing is ever guaranteed.

As people learn every week on “Survivor,” you can always be voted off the island.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 10/9/14.

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