Increase in Population Results in Additional Congressperson
On Monday, Sept. 27, Oregon Governor Kate Brown signed new congressional district maps into law; they will define Oregon’s representation in the U.S. House of Representatives for the next decade. Following results from the 2020 census, which showed a 10.1% population growth in Oregon, the state was awarded a sixth congressional seat and bumped its electoral vote share from seven to eight. Oregon became the first state to ratify new congressional maps, save for states allotted only a single at-large seat.
Governor Brown released a statement following her signing of the new maps, saying, “For the first time in forty years, Oregon is gaining a congressional seat –– another delegation member to advocate for the common good of all Oregonians. After the past year and a half, during which Oregonians have faced unprecedented challenges that have urgently required federal attention and resources, I am particularly grateful that the Legislature has come together to pass today’s historic legislation.” The governor acknowledged some of the challenges that the state legislature has had to overcome in order to get the new maps passed and signed. She continued: “My office reviewed the maps contained in the bills passed by the Legislature after they were proposed this weekend. Redistricting is a process that necessarily involves compromise, and I appreciate the Legislature working to balance the various interests of all Oregonians.”
Not all members of the legislature, however, agreed with the governor on the fair nature of both the maps and the process through which they were implemented. Earlier this year, Oregon House Speaker Tina Kotek (D-Portland) struck a deal with Republican lawmakers by allowing them to have significant input into the maps’ final district lines in exchange for a guarantee that Republicans would not attempt to block redistricting legislation by breaking quorum, a tactic they have used in the past and was recently used by Texas State Democrats in an effort to block a voter suppression bill. Oregon is one of only a few handful of states where Democrats have complete control over the redistricting process, with the majority of states being under Republican control in some fashion, or beholden to independent redistricting committees meant to combat partisan gerrymandering. Last month however, Kotek broke her deal and moved forward with party-line votes on the proposed maps, all of which were decried as blatant gerrymanders by state Republicans.
The Oregon Senate, which passed a separate set of maps several weeks ago, reconvened to approve new maps passed by the House, which were slightly amended in an effort to gain Republican support. The final votes were on a party-line basis.
The new congressional map creates two safe Democratic seats: Oregon’s 1st district, held by Suzanne Bonamici and centered around the west Portland suburbs and Astoria in the northwest corner of the state, and Oregon’s 3rd district, held by Earl Blumenauer, which encompasses most of Multnomah and Hood River counties, as well as a slice of suburban Clackamas County, and is the state’s most pro-Democratic district. Oregon’s 4th district, anchored by Eugene and expanding along much of the southwestern coast, was redrawn to be more favorable to Democrats, helping incumbent Peter DeFazio in a district that was previously characterized as R+1 but is now D+9, according to FiveThirtyEight.com. Kurt Schrader’s district, previously Oregon’s 5th, was split in two, creating a Salem-centered 6th district with a lean-Democratic characterization of D+7, and a highly competitive new 5th district, which is by far the most strangely drawn, stretching from the Clackamas County Portland suburbs all the way to Bend in the center of the state. Representative Schrader could choose to run in either district, but it is clear that Democrats are hoping to give themselves an edge in the 5th by including much of Deschutes County, home to Bend, which President Biden won in 2020. Finally, Representative Cliff Bentz, the state’s lone Republican in Congress, saw his district, Oregon’s 2nd, expand southwest to include the small southern cities of Medford and Ashland, in exchange for the carving out of Bend. However, Bentz’s district is likely to become even more Republican as much of the state’s eastern half continues to be swallowed up into his single, massive district, thanks to population growth remaining almost exclusively within the Willamette River valley.
Republicans in the state legislature objected strongly to the lines on the new map, despite assurances from Democrats that they had fairly drawn as many competitive districts as possible. Representative Teresa Alonzo León (D-Woodburn), advocated strongly for the lines of the new 6th district spanning Marion, Polk, and Yamhill counties, arguing for “the importance of having a district that represents the agricultural community and its workers who make Oregon renowned internationally.” But the outrage over Speaker Kotek’s refusal to hold up the deal was palpable, and House Minority Leader Christine Drazan (R-Canby) even attempted a censure vote on the floor. Despite the competitive nature of the newly drawn 5th district, Representative Jack Zika (R-Bend) accused Democrats of crafting the district without considering the geographical and cultural barriers that exist between suburban Portland and central Oregon. Rep. Zika said: “I have received thousands of emails from my constituents that said that they do not want to be represented in Congress in Washington, D.C., by somebody from Portland… I’m deeply concerned that this map divides the communities of common interest, ignores existing geographical boundaries and cuts through the existing political boundaries.”
Ultimately, despite strong objections and threats of a boycott, 16 of the 23 House Republicans showed up to the State Capitol on the day of the vote, providing Democrats with a quorum. Many Republican members felt that the proposed map was the best deal they were going to get, and feared that if it were to fail Oregon Secretary of State Shemia Fagan would be forced to submit maps. Secretary Fagan is seen by state Republicans as a particularly partisan figure, and it was feared that she would draw heavily gerrymandered maps that would erase any competitiveness at the national or state level. “Many of us [Republicans] are only here because we don’t trust the secretary of state to draw these maps,” said Representative Suzanne Weber (R-Tillamook).
Representative Drazan, the House Republican leader, has pledged to challenge the new maps in court. “The illegal congressional map adopted today, clearly drawn for partisan benefit, will not survive legal challenge. Political gerrymandering in Oregon is illegal and drawing congressional lines to ensure five out of six seats for your party long-term is gerrymandering,” said Drazan.
With the national Republican Party requiring only a gain of five seats to elect Kevin McCarthy as Speaker of the House, this kind of partisan bloodbath has been seen in nearly every state in which one party controls redistricting. Democrats are hoping to press their advantage by gerrymandering maps in states like New York, Illinois, New Mexico, Maryland, and Nevada in an attempt to counter similar efforts by Republicans in large states with significant rural-urban divides like Texas, Georgia, Ohio, and North Carolina. Many other states, like California, Virginia, and Colorado have adopted independent commissions, denying Democrats the ability to draw more favorable, yet less representative, congressional maps.
Oregon’s new maps, while argued by one side as being fair and the other as being rigged, are an example of a larger trend of nationalizing state matters and pressing partisan advantages whenever possible. Whatever the outcome of the 2022 House elections, one can be sure to know that, in the matter of redistricting, Salem turns its eyes towards Washington.