Dear Candidates: Don’t Forget Rural Oregon

By Alex Titus

Dorchester 54 is in the books.

Attendees were surprisingly upbeat about Republican chances in 2018, specifically for our Oregon candidates. Confidence seems to be growing that Republicans have a strong chance to deliver a defeat to Governor Kate Brown in November. During the conference, each Republican gubernatorial candidate was given a ten-minute speaking slot to pitch their vision and campaign ideas.

Unfortunately, very little policy was discussed, and the session turned into a Kate Brown smackdown or Trump love fest depending on the candidate. But even the candidates who indulged President Trump failed to articulate a policy vision that would capture the working-class and rural voters that propelled Trump to a historic upset in 2016.

And not just “Trump” candidates, but all Republicans seeking to unseat Kate Brown need to appeal to these voters if they wish to have any chance of victory. Candidates must introduce an agenda to help revitalize rural and working-class communities to be successful in November. If these voters don’t show up, we will lose – simple as that.

Despite this reality, Oregon Republicans for years have largely talked about how our party needs to make better inroads with suburban and Portland city voters. And this strategy does have some truth. Large urban counties hold a sizeable number of voters and remain an area where our candidates have struggled. Urban voters of course also have legitimate issues and grievances as well. Candidates should certainly outline a vision of how to improve Portland and other urban centers.

But introducing an urban agenda shouldn’t neglect a rural-focused policy platform. Not only does our party “base” mostly come from working-class areas, but rural Oregonians arguably need help more than their urban counterparts right now. Democratic one-party rule has mostly fixated on the needs of cities voters at the expense of the rest of the state.

This neglect has had real effects as rural communities continue to stagnate while urban centers like Portland see major improvements in poverty reduction and job growth. Don’t just take my word for it. Rural communities face low growth and dramatically higher unemployment rates than their urban counterparts per Oregon’s Office of Economic Analysis.

And this isn’t just an issue in Oregon but is seen across the country. Coastal cities continue to thrive while communities in “fly-over” country are being left behind.

Then-candidate Donald Trump capitalized on this urban-rural divide to significant success during the 2016 presidential election. A widely read piece in Politico titled Revenge of the Rural Voter, outlines how Trump effectively brought these voters in numbers unseen.

Angry rural voters stormed the ballot box in record numbers after years of neglect by President Barack Obama and the Democratic Party. The results shocked the political world as Donald Trump went on to capture “blue-wall” states such as Michigan and Wisconsin. Minnesota also went within 2% of going to Trump, a state that hasn’t voted for a Republican since the 1970s.

Rural voters across the country and in Oregon are right to upset. Jobs have continued to disappear while small businesses are forced to close. Federal overreach has obliterated key industries. Leadership in Salem does little to fight back. Working-class communities are not getting the respect or attention they deserve.

So, what might a rural agenda look like? To start, addressing education is a must. Oregon’s K-12 system has failed our children for generations. Approximately 25 percent of students don’t finish high school with a degree. And this crisis has been aggravated even further in rural communities.

Schools in some rural areas see approximately 70 percent of their students not graduate with a degree. Our children are being set up to fail. Education Savings Accounts must be introduced to give these children and their families a much-needed lifeline from failing institutions. PERs also must be brought under control as it continues to eat up larger portions of school budgets. Money is spent on pensions rather than kids.

Healthcare is also an issue that needs to be addressed. Insurance and care-related expenses continue to skyrocket despite Governor Brown promising to address the issue. Adding to the crisis, the Oregon Health Authority mismanaged tens of millions of Medicaid dollars. These dollars were improperly paid out to large insurance companies and hospitals. Accountability must be brought back, and confidence restored.

Rural communities also need someone willing to fight for them in office against government overreach. Governor Brown has been all but willing to kowtow to the demands of federal bureaucrats at the expense of our farmers, ranchers, and timber harvesters.

Federal institutions like the Environmental Protection Agency have clearly overstepped their boundaries. This bureaucratic assault must come to an end and we need a fighter willing to lead the charge. Furthermore, land use and water-rights reform must be introduced to cut back harmful red tape.

These are just a few ideas of what a rural platform could consist of. We must ensure that we are not taking these voters for granted. An innovative policy platform tailored to their needs must be introduced. If they fail to turn out in November, we will lose. Please, don’t neglect our rural and working-class communities.

Alex Titus is an Public Interest Fellow and conservative political activist based out of Washington, DC, and Portland. You can follow him on Twitter @atitus7.