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Trend lines: Governor/Senate

Among the arguments posed for why Oregon Republican Senator Gordon Smith might be vulnerable is the changing political climate in Oregon. If he’s genuinely vulnerable – as we think he is, albeit no pushover – then something would have to be different this time around. Some thing major, especially since he doesn’t even have a major-party opponent yet.

A number of things are different; here we’ll get into one angle of one of them, that being the changing political climate in Oregon.

That change is a large topic we’ll return to periodically. For now, let’s re-examine one of the markers of change since 2002, when Smith last was elected. And by itself, it suggests not a Smith death-knell but certainly cause for concern. That is the election results in the gubernatorial races in 2002 and 2006.

There are more markers available too, of course. Legislative races are useful that way: the vote in 2002 resulted in an Oregon Senate at 15-15 and the House with a 32-28 Republican majority; the vote in 2006 left the Oregon Senate at 18-11-1 Democratic, and the House 31-29 Democratic. That tells you something.

But the gubernatorial race has some particular advantages. The Democratic contender – Ted Kulongoski – was the same each time; he narrowly won in 2002, more decisively in 2006. The Republican nominee changed from Kevin Mannix to Ron Saxton, but although Saxton was presented as the nominee more likely to appeal to independents and some Democrats, and although he substantially outspent an incumbent governor who had just come off a sometimes bruising primary, his percentage of the vote was lower. You have to suspect that something in the state apart from the nature of the four campaigns contributed to this.

(Our spreadsheet outlining what follows is posted online.)

Oregon’s population rose between 2002 and 2006, so you would expect that to lift the raw totals both parties received between those years. It did, but disproportionately. Kulongoski increased his vote total in those years by 13.2%. The Republican vote increased by 1.4%.

At the county level, the distinction is even more striking as that suggests. In only three counties – Crook, Deschutes and (somewhat oddly) Lincoln – did the Republican increase in raw vote do much better than the Democratic increase. In many more counties – Josephine, Klamath, Lane, Linn, Marion, Multnomah, Polk, Union, Washington, Wallowa, Yamhill – some of them unexpected, the Democratic increase far outpaced the Republican. And while Democrats lost total gubernatorial votes between cycles in three counties (very rural Gilliam, Harney, and Lake, which have had population maintenance issues), Republicans lost votes for their gubernatorial nominee in 17 counties – almost half.

If there’s one pivot county in Oregon now, that probably is Washington County (Beaverton, Hillsboro, et al), the second-largest county in the state. In 2002, Kulongoski narrowly lost it; in 2006, he decisively won it. Between the two elections, he increased his raw vote there by 24.6%; the Republicans increased theirs by 2.9%.

The probability is not that Republicans were changing flags, but that independents were less willing to vote for a Republican – even one whose candidacy was billed as designed to appeal to independents – in 2006 than they had been in 2002.

Yes, we did run out the last logical step of this: If you shifted the vote percentage in the Senate races (2002 and 2008) by the same percentage as the governor’s races did, you reduce Republican Smith’s two-way percentage of 58.7% in 2002 to 56% more recently.

This is a very limited exercise, certainly nothing resembling prediction, and a quick look at one factor among many. The 2008 Senate race is yet to be run, and the political climate in Oregon could shift again – one way or the other – between here and there.

Does suggest, though, that the change in tenor of Oregon politics (leaving aside other factors) may already have cost Smith somewhere around a third of his 2002 winning margin. If so, that leaves him less margin for error than he once had.

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