GovernorTed Kulongoski (D)
SenatorsRon Wyden (D)
Jeff Merkley (D)
- 4 D, 1 R
- 1 through 5
Long an American outpost on the Pacific Rim, Oregon prides itself on being an experimental commonwealth and a laboratory of reform, a maker of national trends. It is far removed from where most Americans live but has made its mark on the rest of the nation nonetheless. Oregon has led the way with bike trails and Nike sneakers, light-rail trams and Pendleton shirts. In public policy, it was first to sanction assisted suicide and to adopt mail-in ballot elections. Oregon is an affluent, high-tech civilization where one can still see much the same land that Lewis and Clark saw in 1805 when they came down the Columbia River gorge, past the Willamette River, to the vast Pacific Ocean.
Oregon was settled by Americans when John Jacob Astor set up his fur trading post at Astoria in 1811. New England Yankees in the 1840s rode the Oregon Trail and floated down the Columbia to the well-watered Willamette Valley. In this remote land, nearly 2,000 miles from the Mississippi River frontier and 700 miles from the small Mexican settlements in California, they built an orderly, productive society—a kind of western New England. It grew steadily, with a few booms—in the early 1900s as timber harvesting surged, during the world war years, and then again in the 1970s, when home building skyrocketed and Oregon’s natural environment began to be widely appreciated.
Oregon leaders since Republican Gov. Tom McCall in the 1970s have warned against population growth, but the state has grown significantly over the past two decades. In the 1990s, newcomers filled Portland’s postmodern skyscrapers, the high-tech offices in Silicon Forest to the west, and the smaller cities and towns of the green Willamette Valley. More recently, the fastest growth has been east of the Cascades, around Bend, as land-use restrictions limited growth in the Portland area. Nearly 40 percent of Oregon’s population increase since 2000 has been accounted for by Hispanics, who now make up 10% of the state’s population, far more than blacks (2%), American Indians (1%), and Asians (3.5%). Despite brisk population growth, Oregon has also had setbacks. Lumber production was sharply curtailed in the 1990s (though Oregon is still No. 1 in Christmas trees), and the high-tech bust of 2000-03 hit the state hard. Unemployment was the highest of any state, peaking at 8.1% in February 2002. State government revenues, heavily dependent on the income tax (Oregon has no sales tax), fell sharply, and voters twice, in 2003 and 2004, rejected income-tax increases sought by Democratic Govs. John Kitzhaber and Ted Kulongoski.
Its Yankee settlers brought town meeting-style government to Oregon. This was the first state to give people direct decision-making via the initiative and referendum; it pioneered recall of elected officials and the election of U.S. senators by popular vote; and it was the first state to institute Labor Day. Over the years, Oregon has had more ballot propositions than any other state. The November 2000 ballot had no fewer than 26 initiatives, more than any state since North Dakota in 1932, and the voters’ guide ran 376 pages. A comparatively small 12 measures were on the November 2008 ballot, with a voters’ guide of a modest 156 pages.
In recent decades, Oregon, founded by New England churchmen, has become America’s most non-churchgoing state, with the lowest rate of church membership—in the 2008 exit poll, 31% of voters said their religion was “other” or “none”—and large numbers of believers in astrology and New Age spiritualism. Oregon’s public institutions, like those in New England, have been friendly to the innovations of the cultural Left. Over the last two generations, the state produced the first bottle-deposit law, decriminalized medical marijuana, legalized most abortions before the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision, and backed limits on land development and use of property. It is one of two states that ban self-service gas; the other is New Jersey. The 2007 Legislature, controlled by Democrats, imposed limits on smoking, banned discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and instituted mandatory recycling of discarded electronics materials.
Oregon legalized assisted suicide, in referenda in 1994 and 1997, to the point that doctors can prescribe but not administer lethal drugs. U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft angered many Oregonians by announcing in 2001 that the federal government would prosecute doctors prescribing lethal drugs. A federal judge quickly blocked that decision, and the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in January 2006 that the federal government had overstepped its powers. Another innovation was Kitzhaber’s Oregon Health Plan that went into effect in 1994. State Medicaid officials drew up lists of some 700 medical treatments and ranked them by effectiveness and importance to basic health. Then, based on cost estimates, the state decided how many treatments it could afford to pay.
The state also has been more receptive than most to gay couples. The Multnomah County Commission chairwoman ordered clerks to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples in 2004. Then, across Oregon, petitions were quickly circulated to put the issue on the ballot. A record 244,000 signatures were filed in July, far more than the 108,000 required, and Oregon was clearly the most culturally liberal state voting on the issue that year. Despite $2.9 million spent against the ballot measure, it passed 57%-43%. Later, in 2007, the Legislature endorsed civil unions.
Oregon pioneered state land-use regulation and restriction. In 1973, it passed a law that in many ways limited development, and in the 1990s, the Portland metro area sharply restricted growth and what many considered sprawl. These measures were popular in Portland and the university towns and to a lesser extent in the suburbs. But environmental restrictions have raised hackles in nonmetropolitan Oregon. Logging in the Pacific Northwest was largely wiped out because of restrictions imposed to protect the threatened spotted owl. This provoked sharp protests and a migration to the Republican Party in timber country. In 2001, the Interior Department cut off water to 1,000 farmers in the Klamath Basin to protect the endangered sucker fish. This became a major issue locally, and helps explain why parched eastern Oregon has become as heavily Republican as Portland is Democratic. In 2004, the discontent seemed to spread statewide. State land-use laws prevented landowners from building houses on land without farming it, even if the land was unsuitable for farming. An aggrieved landowner sparked a petition drive for a ballot measure requiring state and local governments to excuse property owners from rules enacted after they bought land or to compensate them for complying. It passed 61%-39%, carrying even Portland’s Multnomah County.
If there is a common thread in Oregon’s ballot issues, it seems to be a regard for personal autonomy and a readiness to discard traditional ways of doing things. Another seems to be a desire for limits on the ability of officeholders to spend public money. Voting on most of these measures has followed similar patterns, with Portland and the university towns of Eugene and Corvallis taking liberal positions, and counties east of the Cascades and outside the metro area taking more conservative stands. These cultural and regional differences have been reflected increasingly in Oregon’s partisan politics. In the 1980s and 1990s, the gulf between liberal Portland and conservative eastern and southern Oregon widened, and since 2000, it has been a chasm. In 2004, John Kerry carried Multnomah County 72%-27%, and George W. Bush carried the counties east of the Cascades 63%-36%. In 2008, Barack Obama won Multnomah with 76.6% to John McCain’s 20.6%, while McCain bested him 56%-41% in the east. Starting in 1986, Oregon has elected only Democratic governors, though only once by a wide margin. Kulongoski was re-elected in 2006, but by a not overwhelming 51%-43%. For a dozen years, Oregon’s two Senate seats were held by a Republican and a Democrat who had run against each other in a special election in early 1996. Democrat Ron Wyden won that contest narrowly, and Republican Gordon Smith won the other seat in the November election that year. For some years, they held town meetings together across the state, and each was re-elected comfortably. But in 2008, Smith found himself running in an unfriendly environment for Republicans, and was beaten 49%-46% by Democratic House Speaker Jeff Merkley.
In 1998, Oregonians voted by referendum to hold all elections by mail, so there are no polls open on Election Day. Voters have until that night to get their ballots to the election clerk. Proponents of mail-in ballots argue that they increase the percentage of people who vote, which has always been high in Oregon anyway, and they give voters time to read over and think about the numerous ballot initiatives. Opponents say they increase the possibility of fraud. Because Oregon has no statewide registry, unscrupulous voters could cast votes in multiple counties.
2008 Presidential Vote
2008 Democratic Presidential Primary
2008 Republican Presidential Primary
Oregon was once the most Republican state in the West, voting for Thomas Dewey over Harry Truman for president in 1948; it voted for Republicans who lost the presidency in 1948, 1960, and 1976. By the late 1980s, it had become one of the most Democratic states, voting for Democrats who lost the race for president in 1988, 2000, and 2004. For a time, the unpopularity of Clinton-era logging policies in much of Oregon threatened to make the state competitive, and Al Gore carried it by only 47%-46.5% in 2000, with 5% for Green Party candidate Ralph Nader. Nader was not on the ballot in 2004, and John Kerry won here by 51%-47%. During most of the 2008 election cycle, Oregon seemed solidly Democratic, though poll results from the first half of September suggested it might be competitive. But after the financial crash of mid-September, Oregon was not seriously contested, and Obama carried the state by a solid 57%-40%.
Oregon once had an important presidential primary, scheduled in late May. In 1948, Oregon ended Republican Harold Stassen’s presidential prospects, when he lost 52%-48% to Dewey. In 1968, Oregon gave Democrat Robert Kennedy his only defeat when it voted 44%-38% for his primary rival, Eugene McCarthy. Oregon in those days was part of a West Coast campaign swing, just before the California primary, at a time when candidates were not used to routinely crisscrossing the country. Like National Football League teams in the 1950s, they scheduled West Coast contests together to minimize travel time. For 1992 and 1996, Oregon scheduled its primary for Super Tuesday in March, but it was overshadowed by bigger contests in the South. In 2000 and 2004, the primary was held again in May. That, of course, was well after the parties’ nominees were determined. But in 2004, Ohio Democrat Dennis Kucinich spent four weeks campaigning in Oregon, hoping to rally a constituency with his New Age, Department of Peace ideas. He nonetheless lost to Kerry, 79%-16%. In 2008, the primary was again held in May, when the race between Democrats Obama and New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton was still raging. Obama carried Oregon, 59%-41%.
|111th Congress: 4 D, 1 R|
Oregon’s current congressional map is the product of a partisan battle between a Republican legislature and a Democratic governor. The Republican redistricters wanted to move solidly Democratic western Multnomah County from the arguably marginal 1st District to the hugely Democratic 3rd District. But in June 2001 Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber vetoed the GOP plan, and in the inevitable lawsuit, a Multnomah County judge chose the Democratic alternative, saying it was less disruptive and better preserved communities of interest.
Oregon seems likely to gain an additional House seat in the reapportionment following the 2010 census. Democrats currently hold the governorship and both houses of the state Legislature by comfortable margins, and if they continue to do so, they will presumably try to add to the party’s 4-1 edge in the state’s U.S. House delegation. That may prove difficult, however, since the fastest-growing areas of the state tend to vote Republican. Democrats may decide to settle for strengthening their current four districts and take their chances in a marginal sixth seat.