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How Is The Health Of Oregon's GOP?

On Wednesday we checked in on the state of Oregon’s Democratic party. Today, we take a look at the GOP.  Oregon hasn’t had a Republican in statewide office since Gordon Smith lost his hold on a US Senate seat, almost four years ago. For two major races this year – Attorney General and State Treasurer – the Republicans didn’t field a candidate. But GOP leaders in Oregon say the party has made significant gains, especially in the state house.

Voter registration rates in Oregon.

Arashi Young / OPB

Last year, scandal forced Democrat David Wu, out of Congress. The Republican who’d last run against Wu – Rob Cornilles – saw an opportunity, and ran for the open seat. But in a special election in January, Cornilles lost, again.

Democrat Suzanne Bonamici is now Oregon’s newest congressional representative.

One of the GOP’s problems is simple math.

Republicans have less than 33 percent of registered voters in Oregon’s first congressional district and in the state as a whole. Democrats in the district, and statewide, claim 42 percent of the electorate.

Courtesy: Arashi Young

The result statewide for Republicans has been the same again and again, as it was in the recent first congressional district race. Tim Hibbitts is with polling firm DHM Research.

“They’re not a particular strong force in the state of Oregon, politically. They have lost 26 of the last 29 partisan statewide races – those are races for president, senate, governor, and the second-tier statewide offices, like Secretary of State, State Treasurer, and Attorney General,” says Hibbits.

Republicans have narrowed the registration gap with Democrats by more than 50,000 voters over the last four years. But Democrats still outnumber them by more than 180,000, according to the Secretary of State’s official numbers.

The good news?

Oregon GOP chair, Allen Alley, says his party made strong gains two years ago in the Oregon House and Senate.

“We’re now 50-50 in the House, virtually 50-50 in the Senate. So, from where we were three to four years ago, when there was a super-majority in the House and in the Senate. I think the party is doing very, very well in the state,” says Alley. 

Alley notes that the most recent governor’s race was extremely close.

Alley says his party’s message is appealing to voters in the middle – as demonstrated by Republican advantages in districts where registration numbers are close.

For instance, Vicki Berger is a Republican representing a district in Salem where there’s a difference of less than 40 voters separating registered Democrats and Republicans. Berger says she’s a moderate with deep roots in Marion County. But she doesn’t like the GOP’s conservative tilt.

“I am concerned about the Republican Party, deeply, because as it becomes more and more conservative, the danger is losing the middle. And if you lose the middle, you lose,” says Berger.

Arashi Young / OPB
Gender breakdown by political party in Oregon

Alley says representatives have to reflect the voters in their districts.

The challenges to winning closely-divided districts and the state as a whole are similar, according to pollster Tim Hibbitts.

“The reality is, this is a Blue State. Republicans can win here, but it’s very difficult for them to win. You need, basically, to find candidates who can appeal to swing voters in the middle, who have been voting for Democrats in most of these statewide races over the last two decades,” says Hibbits.

Some of those are non-affiliated and minor party voters – a block that has grown by four-percent in the last four years. That’s while registration numbers for both Republicans and Democrats have fallen.