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Photo: Bill Bishop
Last week the Oregon legislature took away money that paid for several rural development programs. Earlier in the month, Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski closed the Office of Rural Policy, an office he had opened only four years earlier.
There are arguments in rural Oregon about whether any of this matters. The newspaper in The Dalles has a good series about how rural development spending has helped its region of rural Oregon. The Baker City Herald concluded (in an editorial headlined “Dollars, Not Symbols”) that the Office of Rural Policy never did much anyway — that what rural Oregon really needed was money, not an office in the governor’s mansion.
The real story here, however, was discovered by the Eugene Register-Guard. When the legislature cut rural programs and the governor closed his rural policy office it was a reminder to “rural Oregonians that they stand on the other side of an economic, cultural and political divide from those who govern the state, and it sends the message that state leaders aren’t interested in closing the gap.”
Programs come and go. What has become a permanent part of Oregon politics, however, is a political division between rural and urban parts of the state — a partisan gap so wide in Oregon that a city-dominated, Democratic legislature can cut funding at will to rural, Republican communities.
This is not a phenomenon unique to Oregon, of course. The same division can be found in every state as central cities have grown more Democratic and rural and exurban areas have become increasingly Republican.
There wasn’t a rural/urban political divide 30 years ago. In the 1976 presidential election, the counties that supported Democrat Jimmy Carter had, on average, fewer voters than the counties that voted for Republican incumbent Gerald Ford. The rural/urban partisan gap grew slowly over the next 30 years. By the 2004 presidential election, Democratic counties on average had a population five times larger than Republican counties.
Another way to see the ruralization of the Republican party is by looking at population density. Counties voting for George Bush in 2004 averaged 110 people per square mile. John Kerry counties, however, had, on average, 836 people per square mile.
A generation ago, there would have been no difference at all.
Oregon is the perfect example of this segregation of American politics into rural and urban enclaves. Rural Crook County in central Oregon voted for Jimmy Carter in 1976. Crook County is a ranching and resort region now, but it once was a big timber-cutting county. There were half a dozen sawmills there in the 1970s, rancher Doug Breese told me as we rode around the outskirts of Prineville, the county seat. Now, there are none — a fact blamed, rightly or wrongly, on Democratic-leaning environmental groups.
Back in the 1970s, Crook County was more Democratic than Multnomah County, otherwise known as downtown Portland.
By 2004, however, more than 60 percent of the vote in Crook County went for George Bush. More than 70 percent of the vote in Portland was for John Kerry. Thirty years brought about a 30-point swing in the vote.
The Register-Guard tells us the partisan gap is still growing. In 2001, one in four voters in Multnomah County (Portland) were registered Republicans. Today, it’s one in five.
In rural Oregon, the trends are just as strong, only in the Republican direction.
This trend can be found in nearly every state. Rural California, for example, is growing more Republican. The same is true for New York, Texas and Ohio.
What’s the problem with this? The Register Guard explains it best:
This divergence hardens partisan divisions in state government. Neither party stands much chance of cracking the other’s strongholds. Democrats seeking statewide office know that the people most likely to vote for them live in Multnomah County and a few other mostly urban places, so that’s where they concentrate their energies. Republicans know they can’t win in Portland, so they don’t even try — which helps explain the dearth of Republican candidates for statewide office this year. Few legislative districts have a close balance in party registration, so few legislative contests are competitive and few lawmakers see a potential for political benefit from reaching across the aisle.
These hardening partisan divisions reflect a geographic split, with rural Republicans in the minority. Rural Oregonians have little hope of prevailing on matters of land use, natural resources, economic development and much else, because state government is firmly in the hands of Democrats representing mainly urban constituents. This is a recipe for resentment.