The incredible, shrinking Northwest GOP

As Washington and Oregon become increasingly urban, Republicans are increasingly scarce. They remain in control of isolated, rural counties, but their numbers are no match for Democrats.
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The counties won in 2008, by candidate.

As Washington and Oregon become increasingly urban, Republicans are increasingly scarce. They remain in control of isolated, rural counties, but their numbers are no match for Democrats.

With U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., conceding the loss of his seat Thursday, Nov. 6, the Republican Party in Oregon for the first time since statehood will have no statewide elected officer when all the votes are tallied and certified.

For a state that stayed Republican through the Great Depression, the New Deal, and World War II, and was often linked with Maine as coastal outposts of Republicanism, the situation is historic.

In Washington, more reliably Democratic when Oregon stayed with the GOP, even running away from the tarnished Republican label didn't help Dino Rossi ("prefers the G.O.P. Party") avoid a stunning loss in a governor's race that his national party had hoped to win. Republicans are down in Washington, but not out, and how the party rebuilds will likely determine its near-term future.

Alaska and Idaho remain safely Republican, with Alaskans defying conventional wisdom and continuing to vote for the scandal-racked Sen. Ted Stevens and Rep. Don Young, the former convicted of seven felonies and the latter under investigation on a host of campaign-related charges. Idaho elected a Democrat to Congress from its northern district, where Democrat Walt Minnick ousted Republican U.S. Rep. Bill Sali, but Republicans remain firmly in control of other major offices in that state.

In-migration is the major hope of Democrats in both Idaho and Alaska, and new voters were a factor in Minnick's victory. Alaska is a case unto itself; Democrats had very attractive candidates against Stevens and Young, but loyalty to those who delivered congressional pork for decades booted them home. If Stevens prevails in the final vote count, he will return to a Senate that could expel him unless a court voids his convictions. If that happens, Alaska must have a special election — the governor cannot appoint a successor as in most states — and Gov. Sarah Palin is a likely candidate to hold the seat for the GOP.

Alaska and Idaho have a strong Republican bench to keep the party in the game, but the bench is empty in Oregon and depleted in Washington.

In both states, the question is whether Republicans will attempt to guide back to the moderate politics of icons such as Dan Evans and John Spellman in Washington and Tom McCall and Mark Hatfield in Oregon, or turn sharply to the right as they did in several unsuccessful elections in the past two decades.

There's that election map again. It shows all sorts of red counties in the eastern and southern parts of both states, but not since the Supreme Court ordered one-man, one-vote laws in the 1960s has geography been able to trump population.

This is even more pronounced in Oregon than in Washington. Only three of the state's 10 largest cities (Salem, Medford, and Bend), are in counties carried by Smith. Portland has 15 percent of the state's population, and its penchant for the green and liberal exceeds that of Seattle. Some 70 percent of Oregonians live in cities, according to the Population Research Center at Portland State University, and most of the state's growth is in urban areas, particularly those surrounding Portland.

Oregon Republicans twice in the past two decades shot themselves in the foot, giving just enough votes to third-party conservatives to defeat moderate Republicans in the McCall-Hatfield mold, and the field of electable Republican moderates has been narrowed as a result. This year, a Constitution Party spoiler, David Brownlow, picked up 5 percent of the vote, arguably costing Smith his Senate seat. In 1990, third-party conservative Al Mobley helped elect a liberal Democrat, Barbara Roberts, as governor, over Attorney General David Frohnmayer, one of the best of the moderate Republicans. The party subsequently moved to the right, nominating cultural conservatives and losing badly for offices at all levels in recent years.

Washington's electoral geography differs from Oregon because the state has a major population center in its eastern half; Spokane is also a growth area and, with its surrounding county, has favored Republicans in most elections. Spokane County went for Rossi, but its presidential vote was a 50-50 result. A similar profile was in place for two other critical counties; Clark and Whitman both supported Rossi and Obama. (Whitman is home to Washington State University in Pullman, and Clark includes Vancouver, Wash., which is a suburb of Portland.)

What is important about these results is that Democrats in Washington as well as elsewhere are increasingly winning with urban and educated voters, and these three areas fit that bill. Republicans cannot afford to lose Spokane, Whitman, and Clark counties. What they have been picking up in rural areas of southwest Washington (Lewis and Cowlitz, in particular, are increasingly Republican), cannot counter the state's increased urbanization.

Urbanites often have rural roots, and migration within a state usually tops that from outside the state. The migrants are often young, better educated, and more liberal on social and cultural issues. To the extent that Republicans fall back on hot-button cultural issues such as abortion, school prayer, and gay marriage, they will fail in urban areas. In Oregon and Washington, the party suffers not only from the eight-year record of President George W. Bush, but also from the cultural politics of Karl Rove.

Washington and Oregon are ranked at the bottom in church attendance and are the only two states to legalize doctor-assisted suicide for the terminally ill. They are increasingly dominated by major urban areas which are, in turn, increasingly Democratic. Politicians from urban areas get more television exposure, more contact with people who finance campaigns, more chances to build citizen networks in densely populated neighborhoods. Unless Republicans can rebuild in the cities, they cannot overcome the demographics of people moving from rural areas into urban centers.

There will be intense pressure on Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna to go for governor in 2012, after an impressive win this year in all parts of the state. McKenna carries the brand of moderate and has skillfully used his office to promote his brand. It's an office that took Christine Gregoire to the governorship and Slade Gorton to the U.S. Senate. The state also has a number of high-profile entrepreneurs who would be attractive candidates, and U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert has a strong name as a moderate. The ever-present Tim Eyman may be tempted by the chance of a regular job.

Oregon is short of Republican options, with its largest counties dominated by Democrats and a shorter list of prominent entrepreneurs and self-promoters. The party is in the shape that Democrats were in before they reinvented themselves in the 1950s. The governor's office is open in 2010, offering a window of opportunity without a host of applicants.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Floyd McKay

Floyd McKay

Floyd J. McKay, professor of journalism emeritus at Western Washington University, was a print and broadcast journalist in Oregon for three decades.