But the state's cultural divide won't matter as much this year as it did in 2000, Hibbits says. That election was held in a time of peace and prosperity, so voters felt free to cast their ballots on matters less important than war. "If we were at peace, I think the same-sex marriage issue would be devastating [to the Democrats] this year"—and Kerry would be in danger of losing Oregon, Hibbits says. The state's gay marriage ban will pass overwhelmingly in November, he predicts, but Kerry will still win the state.
As I drive south out of Portland toward Salem and Eugene, I hear some of the extreme leftism Hibbits is complaining about on the radio. The host and a guest were discussing an upcoming "Life After Capitalism" conference. The guest, Z magazine co-founder Michael Albert, declared that today's corporate workplaces in America are "worse than Stalinist Russia." As I neared Salem, however, a more familiar brand of nutjob began speaking over the air. He claimed, among other things, that kids had gone to jail for six months for saying the word "Jesus" in school. If these two people represent how Oregonians think of the two sides in our national political debate, no wonder so many have raised their middle fingers and voted for Nader. Or the Libertarian candidate, as 5 percent of Oregonians did in the most recent gubernatorial election, that party's best showing in the state's history.
Some Oregon politicians are trying to bridge the gap. In Eugene's Lane County, the chairman of the local Republican Party is Bob Avery, a jolly Santa Claus of a man and a self-declared conservative Christian who is nonetheless trying to blunt his party's less popular edges in a libertarian-minded state. Avery, who used to be a part of the motorcycle group "Cruzers for Christ" as well as a motorcycle-lobbying organization called ABATE, A Brotherhood Against Totalitarian Enactments, has tried to make the previously "reactionary" GOP in Lane County more electable. "We need to pay attention to what will work within the district," by not leading with conservative positions on social values, he says. Instead, he emphasizes taxes and growth, though, in Oregon fashion, he adds, "not unbridled growth."
Oregon used to be known for independent-minded Republicans, such as Gov. Tom McCall and Sen. Bob Packwood. Are Oregon Republicans still like that, I ask Avery, or are they more like Republicans nationally now? "It's kind of hard to say, because we haven't put up an independent Republican in a statewide race in a long time," Avery says. "They need to be that, I think, to win the statewide races."
Which brings up yet another problem President Bush faces in Oregon. Four years ago, he was a compassionate conservative, a candidate who tried to rebrand his party in a new, perhaps independent-minded light. This time around, Democrat-leaning swing voters won't buy it. If that alone doesn't derail the president in Oregon, then yet another of the state's many firsts will. Though the state has recently dropped out of the No. 1 slot, for most of the Bush presidency, Oregon has led the nation in something it's not particularly proud of: unemployment.