Before the holiday break, we asked how Oregon could be divided to accommodate a likely sixth congressional district following the 2020 Census. We noted two widely different options.
The first option, floated by attorney Marvin Fjordbeck, is to make Oregon’s congressional districts more competitive. Currently, Oregon’s 1st (Washington County and Northwest Oregon), 3rd (Portland) and 4th districts (Eugene and Southwest Oregon) are solidly Democratic. The 2nd District, which covers most of Eastern Oregon, is solidly Republican.
The 5th District, which stretches from Clackamas County to the Oregon Coast, is the closest thing to a swing district now, but has recently elected Democrats, including current Congressman Kurt Schrader.
The second option, put forward in a December 26 editorial by the Register-Guard, suggests centering the new 6th District in Clackamas County and including enough rural areas to create a district that might be competitive for a Republican candidate to win.
The challenge with both ideas is that the population growth that will give Oregon a sixth congressional district is occurring in the state’s urban areas, which are typically more Democratic in their politics. Another problematic factor is the growing number of Oregonians who are unaffiliated with a political party or registered with a minor party. In fact, there could be some pressure to create a new district that someone registered as an independent could win.
To make all six Oregon congressional districts competitive would require splintering the Portland metropolitan area into at least four and possibly five districts. That could result in some funny-shaped districts that don’t conform to the rule of “coherent communities” within a single district. It also could raise complaints from Portlanders that their influence is being diluted and from non-Portlanders that Portland influence will grow even larger as population growth continues in the city and its suburbs.
Current congressional districts reflect an earlier consensus to center one of the five districts in Portland and two others in Washington and Clackamas counties, respectively. The other two districts represent the vast remaining stretches of Eastern and Southern Oregon.
Creating a swing 6th District could involve combining Clackamas and Yamhill counties into a single district or Clackamas County with rural parts of counties running along the east side of the Willamette Valley as far down as Lane or Josephine counties.
Another possibility would be to remove Bend and fast-growing Deschutes County from the 2nd District and combine it with Salem and Marion County. That could have the unfortunate byproduct of making the already sprawling 2nd District even larger.
An intriguing option that could mirror the Eastern Oregon “community" is a coastal district stretching from Astoria to Brookings. To make that work would require adding at least one inland urban center, which might be Corvallis since Oregon State University plays a role in coastal economies.
Redistricting, of course, doesn’t occur in a political vacuum. The task in Oregon falls to the Oregon legislature. If it fails to pass a plan, the responsibility moves to the secretary of state.
If redistricting occurred in the 2017 legislative session, Democrats would control both the Oregon House and Senate by solid margins. Newly elected Secretary of State Dennis Richardson is a Republican. But redistricting won’t occur until the 2021 Oregon legislative session, following the 2020 Census and the 2020 election. There is no guarantee Democrats will still hold their grip on the legislature through the next two election cycles or that Richardson will be re-elected in the 2020 election.
Redistricting involves lots of numbers and maps. It also involves personalities. Political partisans will be aware of who is itching to run for Congress and might be drawn in – or out – of a district accordingly. Those aspirants who often get the most consideration are ones who vie hard to have a seat at the redistricting table.
Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at email@example.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.