It’s now been two weeks since Oregon’s general election left our “ungovernable” state with John Kitzhaber as governor for the third time. Now the question for Oregonians who do not admit Sam Adams is their mayor is this: How long will they tolerate Portland’s monolithic, liberal Democratic machine to determine almost every statewide race in Oregon?
As seen in the latest gubernatorial race, it matters little what Oregon voters outside of Multnomah County have to say when it comes to statewide races. The Multnomah Effect – led by deep blue Portland – is simply the Democratic Party’s ace-in-the-hole that has determined (and drastically altered) the outcome of most statewide races the past decade. As of October 2010, Multnomah County had nearly 420,000 registered voters. The bulk of those voters reside in Portland, whose 201,000 registered Democrats dwarf the combined totals of the 74,000 non affiliated voters and 46,000 registered Republicans. Of course, every votes counts (presumably only once). And for Democratic candidates running for statewide office, there’s no place like home – particularly for those officials who hail from Portland such as Treasurer Ted Wheeler, Secretary of State Kate Brown, U.S. Senators Jeff Merkley and reportedly Ron Wyden.
This year’s gubernatorial race clearly showed the Multnomah Effect in action and how Oregon truly is polarized between a Portland-centric liberal enclave and a much more moderate remainder of the state. John Kitzhaber went to bed election night smiling and confident, though he faced a 14,000 vote deficit. He knew Multnomah County would carry him to victory and he was correct. Kitzhaber finally emerged with a narrow 49%-48% victory over Republican Chris Dudley. The governor-elect lost to Dudley in 29 of 36 counties even though Democrats enjoyed a voter registration edge of more than 200,000 statewide. But Kitzhaber decisively won the only county and city that seem to matter in Oregon politics.
In Multnomah County Kitzhaber captured 190,000 votes to Dudley’s 74,000. Subtract those totals from each candidate and Oregonians would have elected Chris Dudley by more than 100,000 votes. The Kitzhaber-Dudley race was hardly an anomaly. In 2002, Oregonians not living in Multnomah County preferred Kevin Mannix over Ted Kulongoski by 52,000 votes. But thanks to the Multnomah Effect, where Kulongoski outpolled Mannix 159,242 to 70,745, the Democrat won the governor’s race.
In his 2006 re-election campaign, Kulongoski beat Ron Saxton 699,786 to 589,748 thanks to a huge margin of 177,797 to 65,488 in Multnomah County. Subtract those numbers from both candidates and Governor Saxton would have succeeded Governor Mannix and Oregonians would have been spared the past eight years of Ted Kulongoski.
In 2008 Democrat Jeff Merkley dared to go where every other Democrat feared. Merkley took on incumbent Republican U.S. Senator Gordon Smith. Riding the wave of Obama-mania, Merkley upset Smith by just under 60,000 votes statewide. But Merkley outpolled Smith 242,000 to 96,000 in Multnomah County. So again, other than Multnomah County voters, all other Oregonians preferred Smith over Merkley by more than 85,000 votes.
Multnomah is one of 36 Oregon counties. If Oregon was a dog, it would be a freakish creature that tries to walk forward, but always ends up being dragged backwards by its oversized tail. What can Oregonians in the other 35 counties do to counter the effect of Portland and Multnomah County on the state’s political culture? The answer lies in the results and aftermath of the 2010 state legislative races.
Republicans destroyed the Democratic supermajorities in both chambers, ending up with a 30-30 split in the house and narrow 16-14 deficit in the senate. As noted earlier, Matt Wand’s victory over Democratic incumbent Nick Kahl in HD 49 replanted the Republican flag in Multnomah County and revealed something about Multnomah County that may surprise some outside its boundaries: voters in Multnomah County who live east of I-205 tend to vote more like the rest of Oregon than like their über-leftist Portland cousins.
East Multnomah County’s voting tendencies can be traced back to the Portland annexations of the mid-1980’s and early 1990’s. Many residents in mid-Multnomah County resented Portland’s annexation of their neighborhoods and do not identify with the politics of Sam Adams and the Portland city council. Meanwhile, the cities of Gresham, Troutdale, Fairview and Wood Village have long complained than the downtown governments of Portland and Multnomah County have ignored their needs for years. Just as the rest of Oregon feels helpless against Multnomah County, many county residents living east of I-205 feel helpless against the overwhelmingly liberal politics of Portland.
Oregon conservatives and independents must realize that Portland will remain a deeply liberal and powerful political influence on Oregon politics for the foreseeable future. The goal, therefore, is not to change Portland, but to limit its influence on the rest of the state. The 2010 legislative races laid a strong foundation upon which to improve in 2012, when Oregonians outside of Portland can send a decisive message that the dog intends to control its tail.
The key battleground areas in 2012 will be the metropolitan suburban areas of Clackamas and Washington counties, which saw key GOP wins in 2010. Visually, the objective is to surround Portland’s blue liberalism with a red quarantine wall built on the principles than propelled the GOP to its historic nationwide “shellacking” of Democrats in 2010.
Washington County in particular will see heavy action in 2012 as the GOP seeks to advance from its outlying areas while inner Democratic strongholds adjacent to Portland will fiercely defend their turf. Helping to lead this suburban effort will be Rachel Lucas, wife of HD27 candidate Dan Lucas, who defeated 2002 Libertarian gubernatorial candidate Tom Cox for the chair of the Washington County GOP. This key internal GOP election was a battle over the direction of the Republican Party in Oregon’s second most populous county. For those who celebrate the stunning Republican legislative wins, Rachel Lucas’s election is great news.
In Multnomah County, Jeff Reynolds was elected chair of the Multnomah County GOP, defeating an incumbent whose politics were virtually indistinguishable from most North Portland Democrats. Reynolds inherits a county apparatus that has been historically irrelevant in a county where non affiliated voters outnumber registered Republicans. But Reynolds also has a great opportunity to help solidify and build GOP support in east county, where the next major battles will occur in 2012. Meanwhile, Republicans surviving inside Portland city limits often feel like those vastly outnumbered souls trapped at Helm’s Deep in The Two Towers, wondering from whence comes their help. To them Reynolds’ answer should be the same as Gandalf’s to Aragorn: “Look to the East…”
Bruce R. McCain