By Jim Ellis
July 2, 2021 — Oregon earned a sixth congressional seat in the 2021 apportionment, but exactly where that district will be placed on the Beaver State’s new map is not particularly obvious.
Like most states, Oregon handles redistricting through the legislative process and Democrats have firm control of all three legs of the legislative stool. In addition to Gov. Kate Brown (D), the party has a 18-11 margin in the state Senate with one Independent. Their majority in the state House of Representatives is similarly large, 37-22, with one vacancy. Yet, the partisan breakdown of the state might make drawing a solid 5D-1R map surprisingly somewhat difficult.
Currently, the five congressional districts are not obviously gerrymandered, as the seats are drawn in block form. Naturally, all but two cluster around the Portland metropolitan area, the state’s dominant population region.
The five incumbents are all senior, with Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-Washington County) being the most junior with her original election coming in a special 2012 contest. The delegation dean is House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee chairman Peter DeFazio (D-Springfield) who was first elected in 1986.
As you can see from the following chart, using 2019 population numbers since the Census Bureau will not be delivering census tract data to the states until after Aug. 15, the five districts are remarkably equivalent in relation to population size.
The population figures suggest that each district will have to shed between 115,000 to 155,000 people in order to create six CDs with equal population, likely a number around 710,000 individuals for this state.
Equalizing the districts won’t be particularly difficult but doing so to protect all four Democratic incumbents and adding a fifth safe D seat is a challenge. Looking at the 2020 election results, you can see that Reps. DeFazio and Kurt Schrader (D-Canby/ Salem) both had close elections.
Those numbers are not particularly unusual when looking at the trends over the past decade. Rep. DeFazio, who aside from last November ran against the same opponent, Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine founder Art Robinson, five consecutive times averaged 56.1% through his last five elections. Rep. Schrader, in the adjacent 5th District directly north of Rep. DeFazio’s 4th CD, recorded an even tighter average of 53.6 percent over the same period.
The state electorate, though consistently returning Democratic winners to every statewide position, doesn’t do so in landslide contests. The Democratic victory range over the past six elections went as low a 44 percent in the 2016 state Treasurer’s race to a high of just 58 percent, also in a state Treasurer’s contest (2012). Since 2010, the Democratic governor’s victory percentages have been 49.3, 49.9, 50.6, and 50.0. Therefore, though the electorate returns Democratic victories across the board, Republicans have turned in several competitive performances.
The Democratic conundrum comes to a head in redistricting as both Reps. DeFazio and Schrader will want stronger Democratic seats on the new map. With the lone Republican 2nd District (freshman Rep. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario) that encompasses all of eastern Oregon shedding Republicans to its west, it becomes difficult to draw five safe Democratic congressional seats from the Washington border down Interstate 5 to California.
Therefore, with no obvious area being extremely over-populated to make determining where a new district might lie easy, the legislative redistricting committees can go in many geographic and political directions in presenting a new map.
If they try a 5D-1R map, the regional mathematics suggest that at least one of the Dem seats will be highly marginal thus giving a Republican candidate a legitimate chance to win, or at the very least putting a new Democratic incumbent in danger during every campaign year.
The other option would be to draw four solid Democratic seats for each of their incumbents and concede the new district to a Republican. The latter option might be the smarter move long-term for the Democratic leadership, but internal politics may prevent them from conceding a new seat to the minority party when they have full control of the redistricting pen.
Redistricting is always interesting, and Oregon with its new seat for the coming decade makes the happenings in this Democratic state a place to watch during the coming months.