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How the West Can Be Won

Does George W. Bush have a chance in Oregon?

12:00 AM, Jul 23, 2004 • By ERIC PFEIFFER
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BETWEEN MARCH and April of this year, more than 3,000 same-sex couples were married at the Multnomah County Courthouse in Portland, Oregon. Since then, the gay marriage procession has been temporarily stopped. Today, as the building undergoes renovations, makeshift walls of wood plank and metal bars surround the courthouse. It's a metaphor for how many in the state reacted when the Portland city council began issuing same-sex marriage licenses. Gay marriage is just one of several issues to have emerged since 2000 that could turn the state's once Democrat-dominated seven electoral votes into a surprise gain for President Bush in the fall. As University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato said, "There's no question that Oregon is the least liberal state on the Left Coast."

President Bush has visited Oregon more than any other president during their first term in office--and with good reason. Al Gore won the state by fewer than 6,000 votes in 2000. Bush's strong showing included carrying the state's fourth district, which encompasses the liberal bastion of Eugene. And while Bill Clinton carried the state twice, voters supported him by a smaller margin in 1996 than in 1992. Oregonians have elected a Republican controlled state legislature since 1994. Since 1988, Democratic voter registration has remained flat and Republican registration has seen a steady increase. Oregon also has a rapidly rising immigrant Latino population, a minority group open to supporting Bush.

On the campaign trail, John Kerry has openly and repeatedly promised to repeal all or part of the Bush tax cuts. Already burdened with one of the nation's highest income tax rates, Kerry's proposal is a pill few in Oregon are eager to swallow. As Northwest Bush/Cheney regional chair Molly Bordonaro says, "That doesn't play well here." In February, voters overwhelmingly rejected Governor Ted Kulongoski's proposed income tax increase. Even in liberal dominated Multnomah County, the measure went down with 68 percent opposed. Speaking of Kulongoski, Kerry shouldn't expect support from the first term official. Already unpopular, Kulongoski was recently engulfed in controversy after admitting to covering up an affair former Portland mayor Neil Goldschmidt had with a 14-year-old girl while in office.

ONLY A YEAR AGO, Bush found himself in rough territory out West. Polls regularly showed him trailing the generic Democratic candidate across the board. Oregon was reeling from the highest unemployment rate in the nation. Since then, the tide has begun to turn, with unemployment dropping more than two points in the last few months. Polls now show Bush and Kerry trading leads, but all falling within the statistical margin of error. And voters are noticing at the grassroots level: The Bush campaign has already enlisted a record 13,000 state volunteers.

Two years ago, many of the state's independent voters were upset over Attorney General John Ashcroft's attempt to overrule the state's twice voter-approved physician-assisted suicide law. But the undemocratic enactment of gay marriage may have swung the independent-voter pendulum back in Bush's favor.

The Defense of Marriage Coalition began circulating a petition to place a measure on this fall's ballot that would block state-sanctioned gay marriage. The measure needed 100,840 valid signatures to quality for the ballot, and qualified with a record 244,000 in less than five weeks. The electoral significance for Bush is clear. "More people who are conservative will come out to vote," Tim Nashif, the DOMC chair, said. "This is the kind of issue that has natural alliances. It can only help Bush. Regardless of how one feels about the issue, this is not something Oregonians want forced upon them." State GOP Chair Kevin Mannix adds, "It could be a significant factor, because we think it will increase voter registration and voter turnout among moderate to conservative Oregonians."

A high-ranking state official told me, "In 2000, every single ballot initiative brought out the Democrats. We lost the race because of the ballot measures. It drove the union vote. It's going to have the exact opposite effect this time. This year, every potential ballot measure helps Bush."

THE DEMOCRAT'S worst nightmare could be Bush's greatest asset. Ralph Nader's best 2000 showing was in Oregon, where he received 77,000 votes. Sabato added, "In 2000, only Nader made Bush competitive in Oregon, and only Nader can make him competitive this time around, short of a big Bush surge caused by positive news on Iraq and the economy. Bush's allies might want to make sure Nader has everything he needs in Oregon, plus some independent TV ads presenting Nader as the true liberal and Kerry as just another conventional pol."