With each congressional election year, Clatsop County’s cities are exerting more influence over the vote, and Democrats’ already steady grasp is strengthening.
More than 63 percent of people who cast ballots in November live in cities, a more than 2 percent jump from 2010, according to county election data. The slight, but consistent, rise this decade comes as populations continue to grow in the relatively rural county’s five cities.
Democrats cast more than 2,500 more ballots than Republicans this year, the widest gap this decade. The schism has expanded — except for 2014 — in each congressional election.
“It’s a huge factor,” said Jim Hoffman, the former chairman of the county’s Republican Central Committee. “It’s been something we’ve watched for years.”
Overall, more ballots were cast this year than any other election this decade, save the 2016 presidential election.
“I believe the combination of excitement and interest building since 2016 created that outcome in 2018,” said Bryan Kidder, who was elected last week as chairman of the county’s Democratic Central Committee.
In the 2016 election, the difference between cities and unincorporated areas largely mirrored the national trend, where urban voters tend to vote for Democrats and rural voters prefer Republicans.
In Clatsop County, all but two of the 16 city precincts voted for former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the Democrat. Conversely, only three of the 17 unincorporated precincts did not back President Donald Trump, the Republican.
“Where you have large groups of people living together, you tend to have different needs,” said John Horvick, the vice president and political director of Portland-based polling firm DHM Research.
The county’s historically blue-collar workforce, born from industries like fishing and logging, created a base of centrist Democratic voters decades ago. Recently, liberal retirees and younger voters have also moved to the region.
“It’s long-term history and short-term history that come into play there,” Horvick said.
The race for state House District 32 underscored the growing influence of liberal priorities locally. In May, Tiffiny Mitchell, a political newcomer aligned with progressives and labor unions, defeated Tim Josi, a Tillamook County commissioner who had previously served in the state Legislature, for the Democratic nomination.
With more experience and financial support, the more conservative Josi was viewed as the favorite. But Mitchell, due partially to a focus on canvassing in cities, emerged with the victory and went on to defeat Republican Vineeta Lower in November.
Local Republicans are beginning to think through different ways to promote the party’s message ahead of the 2020 election, Hoffman said. Eric Leggett, who helped lead Lower’s campaign, is now the county Republican chairman.
Early in the process, it appears the message will center on connecting nagging local problems, such as housing and the cost of living, to left-wing policies.
“We need to share information and let people know the threats we face,” Hoffman said. “We need to wake people up and let them know that liberalism is destroying this state.”
Democrats, meanwhile, need to focus on issues that affect people both in cities and rural areas, Kidder said. One of the issues he listed was emergency preparedness, specifically the different evacuation needs between cities and unincorporated areas.
“There are similar issues that affect you whether you live in a city or out in Lewis and Clark,” Kidder said.
What is still unclear, though, is what issues will drive Democratic and Republican messaging nationally and, then, filter down locally. Strategies will heavily depend on the Democrats’ choice to counter Republicans in the presidential race.
“Until Democrats coalesce around a candidate for president, they’re going to be kicking around different themes,” Horvick said. “Whoever comes out on top will, sort of, drive that conversation.”
The 2022 election may be even more interesting, Horvick said. Redistricting after the 2020 census may give Oregon another seat in Congress, and a number of legislative seats could be in play.
“People who have political ambitions have to think beyond 2020 and into 2022,” Horvick said. “That could be a very interesting year in Oregon politics.”