Columbia County is turning red
Columbia County continued its rightward trend last Tuesday, Nov. 3, electing more conservative candidates to the Board of Commissioners, tossing out a circuit court judge who was backed by local Democrats, and lending its support to the re-election bid of President Donald Trump.
County Commissioner Margaret Magruder easily defeated challenger Brandee Dudzic for a second term, winning 56.2% of the vote countywide, according to unofficial results.
Both Magruder and Dudzic are registered Democrats, but Dudzic campaigned well to Magruder's left, arguing for a more progressive approach to governance, and was officially backed by the Columbia County Democratic Central Committee.
Meanwhile, Casey Garrett upset County Chair Alex Tardif in a closer contest, taking 51.7% of the vote to 47.8% for Tardif.
Garrett received backing from the Columbia County Republican Central Committee during the campaign. Tardif is a registered member of the Independent Party of Oregon and is one of the few card-carrying Independents to serve in elected office in Oregon.
Garrett's victory over the one-term incumbent comes despite criticism over his personnel record as a Columbia County department head. The Independent Party set up a website attacking Garrett over a litany of complaints that colleagues and subordinates have lodged against him, including allegations — which the commissioner-elect has denied — that he used the n-word to describe other county employees.
County voters also elected Michael T. Clarke for circuit court judge, unseating incumbent Judge Jenefer Grant. Clarke took 51% of the vote to 48.5% for Grant, unofficial results show.
State and federal races
For just the second time in the lives of most Columbia County residents, county voters selected the Republican candidate for president.
President Donald Trump won in Columbia County by more than 10 percentage points in the Nov. 3 election, uncertified election results show.
In 2016, Columbia County went red in the presidential election, with 50% of voters selecting Trump and just 38% selecting Hillary Clinton. Statewide, the percentages were almost switched: Clinton received 50% of votes, Trump received 39%.
In the 2000 presidential election, Democrat Al Gore won Columbia County by a larger margin than the state overall. In each presidential general election since, Columbia County has edged further right compared to the rest of the state.
This year, voters chose the Republican candidate in every state and federal race, though none of those candidates won seats.
U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, a Beaverton Democrat, won re-election over little-known Republican Chris Christensen. But she didn't carry Columbia County, instead racking up big margins in Clatsop, Washington and Multnomah counties and only narrowly losing the Yamhill County portion of her district.
State Rep. Brad Witt, D-Clatskanie, appears to have narrowly survived his bid for re-election. But he was carried to a 1-point overall victory on the strength of his support in parts of House District 31 that are in Washington and Multnomah counties.
Witt won the District 31 portion of Multnomah County by almost 40 percentage points, and the portion of Washington County by more than 17 percentage points.
Witt did not fare as well in his own Columbia County, where he trails challenger Brian G. Stout, a Columbia City Republican, 46.2% to 53.7%.
Neither Witt nor Stout returned calls requesting comment for this story.
For the first time in Witt's tenure, the other state representative in state Sen. Betsy Johnson's sprawling district will be a Republican in 2021. In House District 32, which includes neighboring Clatsop County, Tillamook Republican Suzanne Weber managed to flip the seat by beating Warrenton Democrat Debbie Boothe-Schmidt 54.1% to 45.7%.
Weber will be the first Republican since 1983 to represent Clatsop County in the Oregon Legislature. Clatsop County has traditionally been a Democratic stronghold.
'Nothing is the same anymore'
"The demographics of Columbia County are changing," Johnson said. "The demographics of Clatsop are changing."
Johnson, a Scappoose Democrat who has been cross-nominated by the Republican Party in her two most recent re-election campaigns, said politics are less "predictable" than they used to be. Ancestrally Democratic areas like Columbia County and the North Coast are trending toward Republicans, but still in fits and starts — with results like the more liberal Democrat Dudzic and more conservative Democrat Magruder ending up in a general election runoff this year in a Republican-friendly county.
"Nothing is the same anymore, whether it's at the national level, state level, county level, municipal level," Johnson said.
Greg Pettit, chair of the Columbia County Democratic Central Committee, said the election results this year aren't surprising.
Columbia County was traditionally a strong union county, with labor unions in the pulp and sawmills necessitated by the active logging industry, and labor unions have long leaned toward Democrats.
"(Since) we lost a lot of those union jobs in the '70s, '80s and '90s, I think that support has kind of drifted away," Pettit said. "We've been drifting to the right for a long time."
Both Pettit and Traci Brumbles, chair of the Columbia County Republicans, say an urban-rural divide separates Columbia County from the metro area.
Brumbles said the issues and politics of Portland are a concern for voters in Columbia County.
"Portland used to be the City of Roses, most beautiful city here in Oregon, and now it's just very, very sad what they have done to destroy that city," Brumbles said. "People that live in Columbia County see what's happening to their neighbor city, and they don't like it, and they feel bad for Portland."
Columbia County residents don't want "extremist Portland politics" to be imported north of the county line, Brumbles said.
But to Pettit, the partisan divide "seems to be almost more of a cultural thing than associated with any specific policies."
As of Nov. 3, registered Democrats outnumbered registered Republicans in Columbia County, as they have for decades. Both parties have grown as the county's population increases, but the Republican Party is growing faster, closing the gap between the two groups.
Though Columbia County has elected Democrats to the Legislature in recent years, they're more conservative than most Oregon Democrats.
Witt was one of two Democratic state representatives to oppose the 2019 cap-and-trade bill; Johnson also opposed the bill.
Even the local nonpartisan races became highly partisan.
The Columbia County Democrats endorsed candidates in the county Board of Commissioners and Circuit Court Judge races, which Pettit said they hadn't done in many years. The party endorsed Tardif, Dudzic and Grant, all of whom lost their races.
The race between Grant and Michael Clarke became unusually partisan for a state court judge position, with Clarke supported by the Republicans.
"The thinking was that the Democrats needed to stand up for people that endorsed the values and the platform of the Democratic Party in Columbia County," Pettit said.
Pettit said he believes making endorsements was the right decision, but he expects that to be revisited in future elections.
Searching for common ground
Despite Republican candidates' performance in Columbia County, every statewide ballot measure passed locally.
Measure 107, which amends the state constitution to allow campaign contribution limits, passed with 74% of the vote in Columbia County and 78% statewide. Measure 108, which increases cigarette taxes and creates a tax on nicotine vaping products to fund health programs, passed with 54% of the vote in Columbia County and 66% statewide. Measures 109, to permit the use of psilocybin in mental health treatment, and 110, to decriminalize drug possession, passed narrowly in Columbia County but were approved statewide with a margin of more than 10 percentage points on each measure.
The Columbia County Republicans opposed all four ballot measures. Brumbles said the votes on the measures were the result of voters not fully understanding the nuance of the measures.
But to Pettit, the results are evidence that voters can find more common ground on specific issues.
"If we could talk more about specific issues, we'd often find we actually agree rather than disagree," Pettit said. "It's almost more of a cultural and tribal alignment than it is about specific issues."
When asked about voters' top concerns, neither Brumbles and Pettit hesitated: jobs.
After the 2016 election, Columbia County Democrats and Republicans, along with minor parties and other groups, came together for a joint forum to find common ground. Pettit said that across party lines, attendees agreed that the cost of a winning campaign was too high and campaign finance limits were needed, and that good local schools and veterans' services were high priorities.
In the past few years though, as the country has become increasingly polarized, that common ground has seemed distant to some.
"Government has become more and more broken over the last four years," Pettit said. "I think that it's going to take time, and it's going to take people really wanting to figure out how to work together to solve our needs for government. But the alternative, I guess, is unacceptable to me."
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