Will Washington County shift back to its conservative roots?
Washington County has shifted a lot politically over the past two decades.
Its conservative rural roots, built on the backs of farmworkers and loggers, have given way to a highly urbanized, technological hotspot of innovation. Current and former politicians say it's this change that has led to a shift toward Democrats over Republicans — despite a long history of Republicans being elected from Washington County to state and local elected offices.
It wasn't that long ago that Washington County seats in the Oregon House of Representatives and Oregon Senate could be considered reliably Republican. But today, Democrats dominate Washington County's legislative delegation.
Some say the days of competitive legislative races in Washington County are gone altogether, which they attribute to changing demographics, economic factors, and redistricting.
But Republican control over this area is by no means ancient history, and some say a return to the red is not as big of a long shot as some may think.
In the 2010 wave election, Republicans picked up six seats in the Oregon House, including two in Washington County. Republicans also picked up two Senate seats, one of which was SD 20, including northern Clackamas County.
This result was an evenly divided House and a narrow 16-14 Democratic Senate majority.
House District 29, which had been represented by Hillsboro Democrat Chuck Riley, was won by Republican Katie Eyre Brewer. She defeated Katie Riley, wife of the retiring incumbent, who instead tried for an unsuccessful bid for Senate District 15.
Neighboring House District 30 saw Hillsboro Republican Shawn Lindsay defeat Democrat Doug Ainge.
In both of those cases, the Democrats lost by more than 1,000 votes.
Lindsay says he lost re-election in 2012 only because of Libertarian Kyle Markley running in the race. Markley got 1,441 votes, while Lindsay lost by about 1,200, and he thinks that since Libertarian votes tend to tilt conservative, he would have eked out a win if they'd gone his way instead.
"But for a conservative running and taking votes away, I think I would have held my seat," Lindsay said.
He also said Sen. Bruce Starr, R-Hillsboro, lost his re-election for the same reason in 2014, when Libertarian Caitlin Mitchel-Markley pulled 9% of the votes and Starr lost by less than a percentage point.
The person Starr lost to? Democrat Chuck Riley, successful in his second attempt to win election to Senate District 15.
Republicans like Lindsay point to these cyclical factors for why this area is still competitive for his party.
"I believe it's still winnable for a Republican in this area," he concluded. "I believe that Republicans could still be holding these seats but for some base consolidation."
Looking back a bit further, local seats were more firmly Republican. The party held a majority in both chambers of the Oregon Legislature heading into the 2002 general election. But that year, Democrats took control of the Senate, and they haven't relinquished it since.
Aloha Democrat Jeff Barker, who represented District 28 in the Oregon House of Representatives from 2003 to 2021, said that he was among the first legislators to benefit from Washington County's leftward shift.
"I ran in 2002 … and then (this area) was all Republican men," he said. "That was kind of the first year that Washington County started to shift toward Democrats. But that was very competitive."
Barker won by just 40 votes — in fact, the tightest election in the state at that time. He defeated Keith Parker to represent District 28. A Democrat has held that seat ever since. Before Barker won election, the seat was held by a Republican.
Politicians who ran for office and who saw the changing landscape at that time all point to similar factors: urbanization, diversification of the voting base and economic changes.
"I've lived in Hillsboro for over 30 years," said Joe Gallegos, a Democrat who represented HD 30 from 2013 to 2017. "When I first got here, it was about 40,000 people. Now it's over 100,000."
"I used to come out here as a kid to do migrant work," he recalled. "It was the place you'd come out to pick berries. But with that shift away from agriculture … you're seeing more service industry-type jobs. That goes in with the suburban shift."
Gallegos and others point to the influx of highly educated workers — drawn particularly to the growing semiconductor industry built up by major corporations like Intel — as a predominant reason for Washington County's blue shift.
Urbanization also leads to more connectivity between the suburbs and the city, so people can work in Portland and live in Hillsboro, or vice versa — meaning the previously isolated and rural population that surrounded Hillsboro in decades past is now more blended with the urban spillover from Portland.
As for diversification, the results of the latest U.S. Census have made clear that Washington County is the most racially diverse in the state. About 40% of the county's population is non-white, with the largest share of that being Hispanic.
The Hispanic population grew by more than 20% compared to the previous census. The Asian population grew by slightly less than that.
However, don't make the mistake of thinking that people of color always vote blue, politicians say. Some Republicans feel the party hasn't done enough to attract minority voters, particularly Hispanic ones, who could be persuaded to vote red.
"I personally think the Republicans have missed the boat, particularly on securing Hispanic votes," said Paul Phillips, a Tigard Republican who served for 14 years in the Legislature. "The Hispanic community is not necessarily uniform and leaning Democrat. People assume that, but it's a false assumption. The older generation of Hispanic voters is very Catholic, very conservative religious-wise."
Redistricting favors the blue
If Washington County shifted to the left, what's to stop it from shifting back to the right? Some say there's nothing stopping that from happening. Some others mention one word: redistricting.
During the past two redistricting efforts, which follow every decennial census based on population growth, district lines have been redrawn largely to favor Democrats. In both 2011 and 2021, districts surrounding Portland were redrawn in many cases to draw more of the population of Portland proper into districts that represent the suburbs.
House District 28, for instance, which currently comprises central Washington County and predominantly covers West Beaverton, will shift much further to the east come Jan. 9, 2023. The new district includes more of Portland, and a district that once rested squarely in Washington County will now span the urban parts of three counties, Washington, Multnomah and Clackamas.
Even some Democrats have called out the redistricting process as unfair. Democrats had full control of the process last fall, 10 years after a bipartisan redistricting effort nonetheless produced maps many Republicans have criticized as unfair.
"I would like to see somebody that's not involved be able to draw those lines in the future," said Barker. "Democrats won't always be in charge, and when someone else is, they will use it as a way of getting even. It just makes a mess of the whole thing."
Barker said he volunteered to be the sole Democrat on a commission set up in 2017 by then-Secretary of State Dennis Richardson, a Republican, to come up with a new process for redistricting.
"I caught some flak for that," Barker said, "But I said, 'Well, it's just a matter of fairness.'"
Lindsay, a co-chair of the bipartisan redistricting committee back in 2011, also talked about the uneven playing field of that process.
"We were fighting with our hands tied behind our backs," Lindsay said. "Yes, we were tied 30-30 in the Legislature, but if we failed, then it automatically gets kicked to the Democratic secretary of state. The Dems had that leverage."
Even being out of the Legislature for a decade, Lindsay remains involved in Republicans' redistricting battles. He was the chief counsel for the lawsuit brought to the Oregon Supreme Court last year that alleged partisan gerrymandering by Oregon Democrats.
Republican lawsuits over redistricting last year were thrown out of court, but Lindsay says the legal battle demonstrates how contentious and important the redistricting process is every time.
Lindsay pointed out, too, that the Oregon Supreme Court associate justice who wrote the opinion dismissing the lawsuits out, Christopher Garrett, was the Democratic co-chair of that same 2011 redistricting committee that Lindsay sat on.
"It's interesting that 10 years later, the same players are still at it," Lindsay said.
Despite these factors, the Washington County Republican Party thinks that the area is due for a shift, and that a tilt back to the middle is likely. Some are predicting a red wave this year, a reaction to the dissatisfaction with President Joe Biden's handling of the pandemic, school closures and the economy. National polling consistently shows Biden's approval rating in the 30s to high 40s.
"With Democrats holding complete power in Washington and Oregon, and with the lockdowns … I think there are a lot of voters that are not too happy with Democrats' choices," Lindsay said. "I think some of those seats that Democrats thought were out of reach for Republicans, based on the redistricting they did in 2021, I think some of those will even be recaptured, surprising a lot of people."
Gallegos counters that voters have reason to be fed up with Republican leadership, too, particularly in Oregon, where the minority party has walked out in the middle of a legislative session three times in the last four years, grinding the business of government to a halt.
"I think the average citizen just gets so disheartened by the fact that even as a minority, the Republicans are able to walk out and all of this kind of stuff," he said. "All of that antagonism in Salem is more and more disheartening to the average citizen."
Gallegos noted that with Oregon's largest share of voters registered as non-affiliated, both parties have to appeal to independent voters, rather than just their own base.
As for Washington County specifically, he feels like the urbanization of this area ultimately has a larger impact on its political representation than whatever gerrymandering may have accomplished.
"It's those sorts of factors that all kind of add together to make the change," Gallegos said. "It was gradual, but clearly, it was a steady march."
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