Oregon is the typical Pacific Northwestern state. Like its neighbor to the North and to a lesser extent California, to its South, Oregon has become ever more Democratic since the new millennium. This trend has only accelerated since 2008 when Democrats knocked off two term Senator Gordon Smith. His then challenger, Jeff Merkley, has been far from the typical liberal though he definitely qualifies as one.
Merkley beat Smith with less than 50% of the vote in 2008 and has been a strong advocate for Obamacare. This is a big reason why Republicans hold out hope they can contest the state this cycle. However, this tends to ignore the sharp leftist nature of the state created by urban Portland and accompanying left leaning suburbs along the Pacific coast and also is contingent on the quality of their challenger to Merkley.
Historically Oregon has behaved much as other states have in the Pacific Northwest. From 1972 to 1984 the state voted the same as California and WA State. However, in 1988 Oregon backed Dukakis while California went for HW. However, since 1992 the state has followed WA State and California in backing Democratic Presidential candidates. The best a GOP Presidential candidate has done in the state in the last two decades was GW. Bush’s performance in 2000 where he lost to Al Gore in the state by less than 7,000 votes (out of over 1.5 million cast). Bush, McCain and Romney have yet to come close to that performance since.
Yet, even as Oregon has shifted to the left at the federal level it has always had a strong Democratic allegiance at the state level. Democrats have held the Governor’s mansion since 1987 while in neighboring WA State Democrats have enjoyed similar success since 1985. Republicans have been competitive in many of these statewide races but have been unable to get over the final hump. Part of this can be explained by the increasingly rural and white coalition that was created for the GOP under Reagan. It shed its urban support in places like Portland for more rural voters in the vast East/Southern parts of the state.
Still, Republicans are optimistic they can make this race competitive. Beyond the political environment being made toxic for Democrats because of Obamacare Republicans feel 2010 allowed them to find a way to appeal to the state’s growing suburbs. The GOP wave of 2010 allowed them to tie the state House of Reps and almost win the state’s gubernatorial mansion with a candidate who ran on fiscal competence and was pro-abortion. Unfortunately for Republicans their current crop of challengers is unlikely to be as socially left as Dudley was in 2010.
Republicans have a crowded primary to take on Merkley. Their crop of candidates features IT consultant Mark Callahan, state rep. Jason Conger, attorney Tim Crawley, Karl King, Joe Rae Perkins, chairman of the Linn County GOP and pediatric neurosurgeon Monica Wehby. Republicans are especially upbeat on Wehby, a mother and doctor who has no qualms talking up the disaster that is Obamacare. They also are confident it will destroy any chance Merkey has to use the Democratic theme of the GOP’s “War on women.” However, Wehby is fully pro-life and if she is the party’s nominee Merkley will play it up in urban Portland and the suburbs.
Scant polling has been done on the race, especially since Obamacare’s rollout. Most of the GOP’s optimism in the state is based off Merkley’s unabashed support for the law and his lack of name ID for an incumbent Senator. He has few major accomplishments to tout and Obamacare has the GOP confident they can drag out every vote they can get from the East of the state. The GOP’s problem however remains mathematical. Consider the 2010 Governor’s race.
Republicans were confident they could break the Democrat’s streak that year with a moderate like Dudley running against former Governor John Kitzhaber. But despite Dudley over performing in several Portland suburban counties (Clackamas, Yamhill, Marion and Washington) he still could not overcome the massive 200,000 vote margin Kitzhaber picked up in urban Portland (Multnomah County). Any Republican running for a statewide office must overcome this electoral obstacle. It is important to note that in all of Smith’s campaigns, 1996, 2002, and 2008 the only county he lost all three times was Multnomah. In both of his successful 1996 and 2002 campaigns he posted at least 35% support in the county. In 2008 he only posted 27%, identical to Dudley’s 2010 showing. So for any Republican to even have a shot of winning in Oregon they need to somehow garner at least 30% of the vote in Multnomah, preferably 35% or more if they do not want to have to over-perform in suburban and rural counties statewide.
The Democrat’s statewide constituency of urban voters, environmentalists and college educated voters has held up remarkably well in the past few decades. Since 2000 exit polls have consistently shown Democrats winning women, college educated voters and those who identify the environment and social issues as most important. It is not a stretch to say prior election exit polls say the same. In 2010 exit polls of the Governor’s race showed Dudley crushing Kitzhaber among men but losing badly among women. Those who earned $100-$200,000 backed Kitzhaber as did those with post-graduate degrees.
Obamacare could possibly shatter the Democrat’s coalition of the affluent but is unlikely to change voters opinions on social issues and the environment. This gives Merkley an opportunity to tie any opponent to caricatures of the national GOP.
Outside groups are unlikely to see this race as a potential target until something changes. Polls or momentum is likely a pre-req for any GOP affiliated group to get involved. With so many other and better opportunities it makes sense they would invest elsewhere. That said, Oregon is no sure thing for Democrats. With the right nominee and some help from the national environment a Republican could upset the political wisdom just as Gordon did in 1996.