PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Steady population growth, driven by newcomers streaming in from other states, is giving Oregon greater national political clout.
U.S. Census Bureau figures released Monday show the state’s population increased by 10% over the past decade to more than 4.2 million, enough to give it an additional congressional district for the first time in 40 years.
Expanding its U.S. House seats from five to six won't necessarily be a win for Democrats, who control the state politically and hold all but one of the current seats.
“The real quandary for Democrats is that Oregon is much more of a competitive state than you would think,” said Priscilla Southwell, a political science professor at the University of Oregon.
In last year's presidential election, she said 42% of Oregon voters cast their ballot for a Republican House candidate. Democrats are concentrated in Portland, its suburbs and Eugene, home to the University of Oregon. Rural and eastern Oregon is heavily Republican.
“I think (Democrats) are going to come under a lot of pressure, probably from Republicans more than anyone else, to recognize that there are a lot of Republicans in the state of Oregon (who) have been underrepresented in the U.S. House,” Southwell said.
The 2nd Congressional District is the lone district held by a Republican and is the largest in Oregon, covering roughly two-thirds of the state. The historically conservative region has not had a Democratic House representative in four decades.
Some local officials say they are worried that the addition of a congressional seat and the redistricting that follows the once-a-decade census could lead to more competitive districts that hurt Republican chances of representing the region.
George Murdock, the commissioner of Umatilla County in the northeastern part of the state, said his “greatest concern is that our district could be gerrymandered in order to further diminish representation for a portion of Oregon that reflects ideology, values and interests much different than the remainder of Oregon.”
Political gerrymandering, the drawing of legislative and congressional districts in a way that helps the majority party maintain its hold on power, may be more difficult for Democrats after a deal they struck with minority Republicans.
Democrats agreed to give up their advantage in redrawing the state’s political boundaries for the next 10 years in exchange for a commitment from Republicans to stop blocking bills in the Legislature with delay tactics.
With the agreement, Democrats and Republicans each will have three members on the state's redistricting committee. A party-line vote will be insufficient to pass new maps, which essentially grants Republicans veto power to block any map of legislative or congressional districts from passing.
If lawmakers don’t reach an agreement on U.S. congressional district boundaries, it would be settled by a panel of five judges, one from each of the state’s current congressional districts. The Oregon Secretary of state would decide the new boundaries of state legislative districts if the Legislature fails to do so.
As with other states, redistricting in Oregon will be affected by the delay in community-level census data, which will not be distributed to states until August or later.
July 1 is the state's deadline to draw new districts.
That prompted state legislative leaders to file a petition with the state Supreme Court asking for an extension to the statutory July 1 deadline. After the court agreed, the Legislature now has until Sept. 27 to complete the redistricting process.