Press "Enter" to skip to content

A small transition, by the river

Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski’s win on Tuesday was a good deal more substantial than his first for the office in 2002, when he narrowly won and carried eight of the state’s 36 counties.

Kulongoski counties 2002
Kulongoski counties 2002
Kulongoski counties 2006
Kulongoski counties 2006

Those counties were Benton, Clatsop, Columbia, Hood River, Lane, Lincoln, Mulnomah and Tillamook. They were barely enough to eke out a win.

In this election he won with a much bigger margin even though adding just two counties to the mix. The numerically important of those was Washington County, the state’s second largest, a county trending Democratic steadily over the past 20 years and a key building block to Democratic statewide wins. It accounts for many of the gains leading to Democratic control of the state legislature. (Kulongoski nearly won it four years ago.)

The other, much smaller but in some ways more interesting, is Wasco County, home of The Dalles.

Going way back, The Dalles and surrounding country is ranching, timber and resource country that has trended Republican. It had enough union base to support the Democratic surge in the mid-50s and into the 60s, but in the 70s seemed to begin joining the parade of rural counties in casting Republican-dominant votes. Only in the 90s did it occasionally, quirkily, vote for Democrats in the case of a particularly popular candidate. But in this new decade, there’s been a subtle transition, and now it seems to have taken hold.

To put this in perspective, look at Wasco’s neighbor to the west, Hood River County, traditionally Republican, and also traditionally a resource industry county. More recently, Hood River has been trending Democratic – we saw in Kulongoski’s 2002 returns, one of the early manifestations. One of Hood River’s county commissioners, Republican Carol York, ran an energetic and very well financed campaign this year against the incumbent Democratic state senator in the area, Rick Metsger. The result: She lost badly overall, but in this three-county district lost worst in her home county of Hood River. What has made Hood River so Democratic? Wander its downtown and you’ll see it fast: A transition to sports/resort/upscale gentrification, a cultural sea change and an altered world view. Hood River is Democratic for many of the same reasons Ketchum, Idaho is.

The Dalles - photo city of The DallesAnd Wasco County and The Dalles? Evidently, moving in that direction. Try getting a motel room in the summer in The Dalles: You’d better have your reservation well in advance. The gentrification isn’t in place yet, but it’s coming, along with a shift in perspective. In fact, the shift is already under way; you can see it even driving through town.

And now we see it in the votes. Wasco did support Republican Greg Walden about as strong as normally for the U.S. House. But it transitioned to Democratic for governor. And consider the story of House District 58 (roughly, the area between Hood River, Bend and Pendleton), for many years a cakewalk district for whichever Republican had the nomination. This year Democrat Jim Gilbertson came within 220 votes (49.4%) of beating Republican John Dallum, and one reason was Gilbertson’s win in Wasco (along with Jefferson and Gilliam).

Some of this country is in transition, even if it takes several elections to make itself known.

Share on Facebook