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Eastern Oregon Democrats Hope 2008 Is A Breakthrough Year

The national political map is famously split between red and blue states, solidly supporting either Democrats or Republicans. The political map in Oregon is possibly even more divided.

But at a party in Bend Tuesday, state Democrats said 2008 will be the year they change that. Central Oregon correspondent Ethan Lindsey reports.

Of the 370,000 voters in Portland's Multnomah County, just 20 percent are registered Republicans.

Now, shift over to Malheur and Lake County. In those eastern districts, there are twice as many Republicans as Democrats.

In fact, the last time a Democrat won a state-level election east of the Cascades, John  Kitzhaber was still in his first term as Governor.

The year was 1996, and Bob Jensen won the Pendleton area's state house seat as a moderate Democrat.

Even that victory was short-lived since Jensen promptly switched parties in 1999.

But state Democrats say 2008 is the year they break the losing streak.

About 100 Democrats gathered in Bend this week to kick off the Oregon House campaign of attorney Judy Stiegler.

She's running against Republican timber industry consultant Chuck Burley. It's a rematch of a 2004 campaign the Democrat lost by just 547 votes.

Judy Stiegler: “We reflected some of the changing climate of this district, and that says to me it's about time. [LAUGH] How's that? And quite frankly this could very well be the district to elect a Democrat east of the Cascades in quite some time.”

Bend's population growth has brought an influx of more liberal, middle-aged voters.

That means the district Stiegler is hoping to represent is now almost evenly split between Democrats and Republicans.

But Republican Chuck Burley says the GOP still holds a slight majority.

Chuck Burley: “In 2004, when this was an open seat, clearly the way that this district is mapped, it's a very moderate district. The difference now, of course, is that I've got two terms and I've got a very strong record that I can stand on and campaign on.”

Both Democrats and Republicans say they hope to raise as much money as they did last time around - and that was possibly the most expensive campaign in eastside history. The two candidates spent a combined half-a-million-dollars.

And the Bend legislative race could be indicative of a bigger trend across the state.

Keith Mobley is an attorney in Wasco County.

Mobley says he is a registered Republican.

But he isn't going to vote the party line this year - and he says the national political calculus means he won't be alone.

Keith Mobley: “If you look at the big picture, with the way things have been trending, with the economy and Iraq and all of it. This is a year when Republicans will have to be working harder, and Democrats will have a better shot in eastern Oregon than they have in previous years.”

Stiegler says 2008 will be all about those moderate Republicans, and their opinion of President Bush.

Judy Stiegler: “Someone the other day told me we're much more like a suburban district, not urban, not rural. But I think probably the political climate has a lot to do with it as well. Again, it's a presidential election year and there is a politics out there among the populace of being tired of the same old M.O., and we'll see if they're ready for a change.”

Pete Wells is one of those voters who could help remake the Oregon political map next year. He lives in Pendleton and says he used to be a Hatfield-Packwood Republican.

Mark Hatfield and Bob Packwood were the state's two Republican senators in the 1980s. But he's now a registered Democrat because he says the Republican party has abandoned those moderate principles.

Pete Wells: “I think it's an opening that Democrats can exploit, but I don't think they can hold on to it. I don't think it's a situation where you're going to see a strong tide of Democrats.”

Remember, after his landmark victory in the 90s, Pendleton State Rep. Bob Jensen deserted the Democrats in two short years.

Wells says eastern Oregon residents are independent-minded issues voters. And although they're generally more aligned with Republicans — every once in a while they shift left.

We got help reporting this story from people in our Public Insight Network. PIN members are helping us cover the news by sharing their knowledge and experience.   If you'd like to contribute your knowledge, you can learn more about the Public Insight Network on our web site - .

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