How Republicans Can Win in Oregon

By James A. Ball —

2018 was a bad year to be a Republican in Oregon. We lost several seats in the legislature, giving the Democrats a super majority in both houses, and a lesser known fact is that we had more Democrats votein 2018 than we have Republicans registered.With results like this it’s hard to feel confident about the future.

However if you go back to the 2016 election, Dennis Richardson became the first Republican to win a statewide office in more than 20 years. What happened? Oregon’s demographics haven’t shifted much from 2016 to 2018, how did Richardson pull off a win in such a blue state and how can we replicate that victory in the future?

To try to answer that question I looked at the election data, which is freely available for anyone at the Secretary of State’s website. We can talk about Brad Avakian being a bad candidate or Trump or Kitzhaber’s resignation, and all those things came into effect as well, but for this article I’m going to focus on the data.

First off, let’s start with a graph. Each point is a county in Oregon and the vertical axis is the ratio of Republicans to Democrats in that county. For a county where there are 3 Republicans for every Democrat, that point will show 300%, whereas a county with 2 Democrats for every Republican will show 50%. The red line is 1:1 Democrats to Republicans which is just for reference.

The horizontal axis is where things get interesting. Those are the number of votes for Trump compared to the votes for Richardson. To the left of center, you have counties which voted more for Trump and to the right you have counties with voted more for Richardson. 

This graph shows us a few things. First, you can see there’s a trend where the more conservative a county gets, the more likely they were to vote for Trump and not for Richardson. This is a disturbing trend. For instance in Lake County there were 198 voters who voted for Trump and skipped the Secretary of State question (or voted Avakian/someone else). Lake County only has ~4,800 registered voters so that amounts to 4% of total voters in the county. I’m picking on Lake because it’s the most conservative county in Oregon with a vertical score of 308%, but there are 16 conservative-leaning counties which have the same trend. And those numbers are likely higher because anyone who voted for both Clinton & Richardson would subtract from the number on my chart.

On the opposite side of the graph you can probably guess which county has the lowest vertical score, Multnomah, with a score is of 24%. Interestingly, Multnomah is also the county furthest to the right, indicating more votes for Richardson than for Trump. Put another way, there are more than 35,000 voters in Multnomah County who voted for Richardson but who also voted for someone other than Trumpfor president. That’s 35,000 left-leaning voters who are willing to vote for a Republican if it’s the right candidate and the right circumstances. For comparison, more than half the counties in Oregon have fewer than 35,000 totalregistered voters.

So what’s the takeaway? First of all, if you live in a right-leaning county, encourage your fellow Republicans to vote down-ballot. Your state and local elections have a much more direct impact on your life than national elections do. If you’re going to take out your ballot and vote Trump, you might as well vote Republican the rest of the way too.

Second, Multnomah County is far from a lost cause, in fact I believe it’s the key to winning. With more than 4 Democrats for every Republican, we will likely never win a local race in that county, but the larger, higher population counties can swing a statewide race in our favor. If you add up the numbers from the Portland tri-county area, there are more than 80,000 voters who voted for Richardson but not for Trump which is more than Richardson’s total margin of victory. Without these left-leaning voters in the Portland metro area, Brad Avakian would be our Secretary of State.

So how do we reach these left-leaning voters? How do we convince them to vote Republican in the future? Unfortunately the numbers can’t tell you that.

James A. Ball is a Multnomah County PCP and host of The Rational Republican podcast.