The "Two Oregons:" Alive and Well Again

If any one still wonders if there are two Oregons, just look at this map.Image via fivethirtyeight.com

It confirms again what we have seen several times – Democrats in Multnomah County vote early and late and pull the Democrats, in this case, John Kitzhaber, to victory over Republican Chris Dudley in one of the closest governor's races in history. Of Oregon's 36 counties, Kitzhaber won only seven; Dudley won the other 29. Moreover, in Multnomah County, Kitzhaber won 71 percent of the vote to 27 percent for Dudley.

Voters who watched the final results roll in last week must have thought they were re-living the situation two years ago when Democrat Jeff Merkley pulled ahead in late returns to upset U.S. Senator Gordon Smith.

For Republicans, the two Oregons are a reality that is hard, perhaps even impossible, to overcome. Even a Republican moderate and a newcomer like Dudley can't do the trick, pulling only about 25 percent of the votes in the state's most populous county while he surged in rural Oregon.

Here's the way The Oregonian put in last Sunday's election wrap:  "The county, home to the state's largest city and a fifth of the state's voters, has become the symbol of Democratic political dominance in Oregon. Several other counties are just as rigidly partisan – Dudley won five counties by more than 70 percent – but none carries anywhere near the weight or attention of the county that is at the heart of the state's one major urban region."

Beyond the election results, the notion of two Oregons carries a stern challenge for the new governor when it comes to how he will manage state government leadership issues in Salem. What can he do that will have benefit in rural Oregon? What can he do to resuscitate his reputation there, coming, after all, as he does, from rural Douglas County? What can he do to stimulate economic development and recovery – call it the "Oregon Comeback" as both Dudley did this time and as former Governor Neil Goldshmidt did when he won in 1986 – in rural parts of the state where unemployment runs in double digits, far higher than in urban Oregon? What can he do to counter a prevalent view in rural Oregon that no one west of the Cascades understands the problems of Eastern Oregon?

One small action for the new governor is to reach out to citizens in all counties, replicating what Dudley said he would do and what U. S. Senator Ron Wyden has done – which is visit each of Oregon's 36 counties at least once, if not more often, every year.

But beyond that, the governor-elect and his Administration must have a message to deliver when they show up in Burns, Lakeview, Klamath Falls, Madras, Pendleton, Ontario or any place where Dudley won.

As the new governor faces huge challenges as he prepares to take office in January and as he puts his Transition Team in place, perhaps this week, it will be telling to see how he handles the two-Oregon reality.