Politics & Policy

Oregon Trail

The Beaver State is trending Democratic. Can McCain compete?

Bend, Oregon — The Obama phenomenon is rapidly sweeping Oregon. At least that was the predominant narrative following the Illinois senator’s eye-popping rally in Portland last week, with 75,000 attendees in Waterfront Park.

To Oregonians, that wasn’t a particularly surprising turn of events. For some time now, Portland has rapidly been trending in a politically liberal direction that’s earned it the nickname “San Francisco North” in other parts of the state. (Of course, the free Waterfront Park concert beforehand probably also helped.)

Outside of Portland, Obama fever hasn’t quite caught on so dramatically, but the Democratic party is quietly making inroads. Three and a half hours south of Portland lies Bend, the fastest growing city in the state. Nestled in the heart of the breathtaking Cascade mountains, this once quiet town is slowly becoming one of the nation’s premiere destinations for outdoor activities. From skiing and mountain bikng and rock climbing to hunting and fishing and whitewater rafting, my hometown has got it all.

From 2000 to 2006, Bend’s population increased by over 50 percent. The once-conservative mountain enclave has steadily become more liberal as it has filled up with out-of-state residents. And for that reason, the remote town was a battleground in this year’s Democratic primary. Bend was the site of campaign stops by Bill Clinton — who visited twice — Chelsea Clinton, and Barack Obama a week before the primary.

This abundance of Democratic campaigning reflects just how rapidly the population influx into Central Oregon has tilted the county toward the Democrats — for the first time in decades. According to Deschutes County Clerk Nancy Blankenship, the county now has some 3,200 more registered Democrats than Republicans. About 4,000 new registrations were added since January, and the new registrations are overwhelmingly Democratic. Waiting in the clerk’s office to interview the cheerful and efficient Blankenship, I watched her tell a woman in acid-washed jeans and an Obama t-shirt that she couldn’t vote for the object of her sartorial affection because she had failed to register as a Democrat by the deadline three weeks ago.

So why care about Bend? For one, this is an alarming development for Republicans, considering that President George W. Bush carried the same county in the 2004 election by 15 points. While it was considered a swing state not that long ago, Oregon has been trending Democratic for some time. But that was largely because of Portland — the metro area contains over half the state’s population. You can win every county in the large state and if you don’t carry one of the two counties that make up the Portland metro area, you’ll lose the election.

Now it appears that rural counties in the Beaver State, with radically different demographics, are also drifting Democratic. Aside from the long-term implications, this has to be worrisome to John McCain. Though Oregon has gone blue in the last two Presidential elections, McCain plans to contest the state. That may seem a waste of resources, but there are solid reasons for this. Some 24 percent of the state’s 2 million registered voters are independents, and the state has a history of warming to liberal and/or reformist Republicans like McCain. Arguably the state’s most beloved politician was governor Tom McCall, who was a Republican very much in the McCain mold — exhibiting a strong environmental bent, and a habit of candid “straight talk.” (McCall is famous for telling potential Oregon tourists, “Come visit us again and again. This is a state of excitement. But for heaven’s sake, don’t move here to live” — a sentiment still shared by many long-term residents of the state.)

For his part, McCain has already made a small ad buy in the state and made a speech about the dangers of global warming a week in advance of the Oregon primary. While the speech on global warming is the kind of thing that makes his conservative base groan, in environmentally conscious Oregon it was a savvy move. McCain even got the state’s Democratic Governor Ted Kulongowski to show up for the speech. Whatever you think of the politics of global warming, in purely political terms, the speech sent the right signal to voters in Oregon.

By contesting Oregon early, McCain is going on the offensive. No one expects McCain to win here, but if he can make the race close, he can drain resources that Obama needs to spend elsewhere out west. Obama has to count on Oregon, particularly since the primary results indicate that he’ll have trouble competing in delegate-rich strongholds like Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida, not to mention swing states like West Virginia. To make up ground elsewhere, Obama will have to look at flipping Colorado and other states in the interior West to the Democratic column. As Ryan Sager observed of the 2004 election in an article for The Atlantic, “Fewer than 70,000 votes among Colorado, Nevada, and New Mexico, with their collective nineteen electoral votes, could have swung the election just as surely as Ohio’s 60,000 [which decided the election for Bush].”

Similarly, it won’t be easy for McCain to wring the votes he needs out of areas such as Bend and other more rural parts of Oregon either to make the state competitive or actually win the state. Still, it’s not impossible. Oregon’s primary is closed to only registered Democrats and thus doesn’t tell us anything about how the state’s 24 percent of independents will affect the election. If a considerable percentage of Oregon independents don’t break for McCain, his strategy to spend his limited time and resources making Obama compete in Oregon might hurt him in other states, considering the fundraising advantage that Obama enjoys.

The moment I walked through the door of Hillary Clinton headquarters on primary day — an empty storefront in downtown Bend humming with volunteers making Get Out The Vote calls — one of the local organizers began lamenting that they were being vastly outspent by the Obama campaign. I imagine that was but one of many lamentations that day, as Obama carried Deschutes County Democrats by 20 points on his way to primary victory.

I also spoke with Hillary volunteers Richard and Doris Dedlow, two 83-year-old school teachers who’ve lived in Bend for 46 years — almost half the town’s existence. In his speech that night in Iowa, Obama said of his Oregon primary victory, “It’s why grandparents have spent all their afternoons making phone calls to perfect strangers.” His campaign doesn’t have a monopoly on that demographic, apparently. Both Dedlows are longtime Democratic activists who are very concerned with Obama’s lack of experience. They said if Hillary didn’t get the denomination, they hadn’t made up their minds whether they would vote for Obama.

“Sometimes I like McCain and sometimes I don’t,” Doris said.

Her words aren’t a cause for optimism, but considering the way the political winds are blowing in Oregon and elsewhere, McCain will have to take what he can get.

— Mark Hemingway is an NRO staff reporter.

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