Is Oregon too progressive for Kerry to win it?

A guide to the swing states.
Aug. 19 2004 4:40 PM

Oregon

Is it so progressive that Kerry could lose it?

In the American myth, our country is a journey, a great national voyage toward ever more freedom. And on that expedition, Oregon is the last stop, the destination state, the place where we all get off. Lewis and Clark finished here. So do we. Oregon is the Promised Land where our long pilgrim's progress discovers a cornucopia of milk, honey, timber, microchips, jam bands, anarchists, and Ken Kesey.

Progress so infuses the Oregon mindset that here, even the chairman of the state Republican Party refers to himself as a "progressive." What the Japanese are to technology, Oregonians feel their state is to government: the place that's always just a little bit ahead. For a relatively young state, Oregon has accumulated a disproportionate share of national firsts (many of which are less objectionable than its culinary invention, the Gardenburger). At the beginning of the 20th century, Oregon pioneered direct democracy as the first state to institute the initiative, the referendum, the recall, and (don't tell Alan Keyes) the popular election of U.S. senators.

More recently, it has continued to boldly go where no state has gone before. It passed the nation's first limited-growth law in the 1970s, and it became the first state to legalize physician-assisted suicide, approved by Oregon voters in 1994 and 1997. The state's congressional delegation boasts David Wu, the first Chinese-American member of the House of Representatives, who is now being challenged by Goli Ameri, a Republican woman who would be the first Iranian-American in Congress. *

For the presidential election, Oregon brings us another first: It has moved up Election Day by 2 1/2 weeks. Four years ago, Oregon voters participated in the first-ever U.S. presidential election in which the balloting was conducted entirely by mail. (To make balloting more convenient, Oregon voted in 1998 to conduct all of its elections by mail—using what most states think of as "absentee" ballots.) This year, they're doing it again, and the ballots get mailed to voters on Oct. 15.

Instead of carrying out a 12-hour get-out-the-vote operation, political campaigns, parties, and interest groups in Oregon will muster a 19-day GOTV drive. "Ten percent of the people vote when they first get their ballots," says Bruce Harvie, campaign manager for Jim Feldkamp, a long-shot Republican candidate taking on Democratic Rep. Peter DeFazio in Oregon's 4th Congressional District, which includes Eugene and a large chunk of the southwestern portion of the state. "You need to reach those people immediately." America Coming Together, the liberal, George Soros-funded 527 group, will dispatch teams in minivans every day to collect ballots from the voters ACT has identified or registered. During the vote drive, both sides can tally up their "halftime score" by checking with the state's county clerks, who hand out lists—sometimes in computerized formats—that show which voters have cast ballots. The county clerks don't divulge how each person voted, but the two campaigns can still compare the voters to the names on their enormous databases to see how effectively each side is turning out the voters on its lists.

Because of vote-by-mail, in campaignland Oregon really does live three weeks in the future. Just as the ground war will start earlier, so will the air war. The campaigns will ratchet up their ads five weeks in advance of Nov. 2, instead of the conventional two weeks. In Oregon Campaign Time, today is Labor Day.

John Kerry leads by 8 points (with a 4-point margin of error) in the most recent statewide poll, taken last month. Can President Bush catch him? Only if Ralph Nader is on the ballot, and right now the odds aren't good. Oregon may be the most Nader-friendly state in the nation. In 1996, a year that Nader spent less than $5,000 and pretty much campaigned for the presidency from his Dupont Circle apartment, 4 percent of Oregon voters voted for him, Nader's best performance in the country that year. In 2000, he got 5 percent, 77,000 voters, as Al Gore eked out a narrow 6,595-vote victory over George W. Bush.

Even after his role in the disputed 2000 election, Nader continued to draw big crowds in the state. In August 2001, 7,000 people paid money to see Nader speak in Portland. So everyone assumed he wouldn't have trouble gathering 1,000 people for a nominating convention, one of the ways to get on the Oregon ballot. The first time, Nader was so cocky that he scheduled his convention at the same time as the NCAA men's basketball championship game. Only 750 people showed up. Nader tried again and could muster only 950. ("Give me three weeks, if I work really hard at it, and I could throw a birthday party and get 1,000 people to show up," scoffs Scott Ballo, the ACT spokesman.) Having failed at the nominating convention, Nader's campaign needs to turn in 15,000 signatures by Tuesday. Most people don't think he's going to make it, even with the assistance of various, understandably sympathetic, conservative groups. An off-duty waiter at the Deschutes Brewery and Public House in the town of Bend says that the local Green Party organizer told him she wasn't doing any organizing work to put a candidate on the ballot. Instead, she told him, "Vote Kerry."

Independent pollster Tim Hibbits
Independent pollster Tim Hibbits

Say Nader did pull off a miracle and make the ballot. Even then, there probably won't be enough Nader voters left to flip the Beaver State to Bush. Tim Hibbits, an independent pollster who does work for the statewide Oregonian newspaper, Portland's ABC affiliate, and various business clients, rates Bush's odds of carrying Oregon at 1 in 4, or at best, 1 in 3. The president is popular in the rural parts of the state, but there just aren't enough Oregonians there to offset the liberal population centers of Portland and Eugene, particularly Portland's Multnomah County. Four years ago, Gore won only eight of Oregon's 36 counties, but he carried Multnomah County by more than 104,000 votes, which was enough to offset the nearly 100,000-vote deficit he racked up in the other 35 counties. Kevin Mannix, the chairman of the state Republican Party, tells me that the secret to Republican victories in statewide elections is winning 32 percent of the vote in Multnomah. It almost never happens.

In the pollster Hibbits' disdainful tone about Portland's Democrats, I hear the resentment of the rest of the state that has led Oregon to cast more and more Republican ballots in each of the past three presidential elections. Portland's Democrats have become extreme "latte leftists," "pathetic" rich wackos and oddballs, Hibbits tells me. His town is turning into San Francisco, he complains. "San Francisco's politics no more represent America's than some rural county in Utah. Now [Portland is] heading off in the same direction."

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.

Bob Avery, Lane County GOP chairman
Bob Avery, Lane County GOP chairman

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.

Correction, Aug. 19, 2004: The article originally stated incorrectly that David Wu is the first Chinese-American member of Congress. (Return to corrected sentence.)

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