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Know the West

As Oregon’s midterms approach, divided sides dig in

The right and the ‘resistance’ are doubling down after the election of Donald Trump.


Dana Loesch paced the carpeted stage under the fluorescent lights of a Holiday Inn one February afternoon in Portland, Oregon. A 39-year-old radio commentator and National Rifle Association spokesperson, Loesch bills herself as a conservative with “punk-rock irreverence.” A crowd of her fans, some older in windbreakers and MAGA hats mixed with some younger people, nibbled cold cuts from paper plates and drank watery coffee as they waited eagerly to see — in real life — the host of the Dana Show: The Conservative Alternative

Loesch, who lives in Texas, was the keynote speaker at the Freedom Rally, a gathering of Oregon conservatives. She dove into national issues, from “the culture fight” to the special counsel investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election. She railed against “coastal elites” and made fun of the low number of protesters outside, saying she had expected more from Portland. “Weren’t there violent protests here in Oregon, just a year ago?” she asked. “Yeah,” the crowd rumbled back. She mocked the concerns of the left, saying people should use whichever bathroom matched “what God gave them.” Throughout, Loesch and other speakers referred to a vague threat, an unspoken but clearly understood “they” or “them” that needed to be faced. “They always diminish anything with which they disagree,” Loesch said into the microphone, pacing in her heeled black boots. “That it’s racist, it’s bigoted, it’s violent, something to avoid addressing the substance of the point being made.”


That same night, across town, Loesch’s presumptive “theys” and “thems” were gathered at a community center that mentors homeless youth. An organization called Portland’s Resistance was celebrating a year of protests against the policies of President Donald Trump, including mass airport rallies against the president’s travel ban and street clashes with extreme right-wing demonstrators. Here, a giddy, prom-like atmosphere prevailed, as around 100 mostly younger people mingled on a dance floor in dresses and suit jackets, under silver balloons spelled out the word “Resist.” They handed out awards like “Most Inspiring Radical” and “Best at Getting Arrested.” “It’s terrible it has taken such an anomaly of history in the election of Donald Trump to engage so many people in a civic sphere again,” James Ofsink, a community organizer with Portland’s Resistance, told me. “But it’s good to see so many people out.”

So began Oregon’s 2018 midterm election year, in what are extremely divisive times for the state, and the nation. Oregon is part of the West Coast blue bloc, flanked by Washington and California, with a heavy Democratic presence in Portland and the surrounding Willamette Valley set against the largely rural, red, portions of the state. The 2016 election energized both sides. This year, 17 candidates are vying for governor (the most in two decades), and 11 are running for a seat in congressional District 2. That seat — in a district that covers the eastern two-thirds of the state and is larger than any state east of the Mississippi River — is currently held by Oregon’s only Republican congressional representative. Democrats see 2018 as an opportunity to expand their reach in a state where Hillary Clinton defeated Trump in the 2016 election by 11 percentage points. Republicans, meanwhile, are determined to renew their influence in the same state, where Trump won 28 of 36 counties. How either party will fare remains unclear, but as the two very different gatherings in Portland show, the emotional carryover from 2016 is still at work. 

People criticize U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., during a constituent town hall meeting in 2017 in Bend, Oregon. Walden is expected to win reelection in the midterms even with so much polarization in the state.
Terray Sylvester

The very name of the Freedom Rally called to mind the violent Free Speech Rallies held in Portland last year, attended by members of the alt-right (whose lead organizer, Joey Gibson, is now running for U.S. Senate in Washington state). On this February night, however, Oregon’s conservatives — from small towns like Madras and Newport and rural counties like Jackson and Clackamas — sat quietly in the rows of conference chairs, absorbing the messages of Loesch and her fellow speakers. Greg Walden, the Republican incumbent for District 2, put it mildly: “You don’t move America forward by resistance.” David Clarke, a prominent member of the Arizona-based Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, which believes that elected sheriffs are the supreme law of the land, was less temperate in his language. Democratic voters, he said bluntly, “are sociopaths.”

The Resistance is also riding the past two years’ emotional turbulence into the midterms. Composed of Democrats, socialists, anarchists and supporters of the failed Democratic challenger, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Resistance is hoping to influence city, county and state elections. “We are resisting policies that are top-down driven to continue the status quo of increased isolationism, increased wealth inequality and injustices, particularly in the criminal justice system,” Ofsink said. Chief among those are federal attempts to sway states on immigration and climate change issues.

Oregon's 2nd Congressional District covers roughly two-thirds of the state.
U.S. Census Bureau

The early season gatherings of the left- and right-of-center might be politics as usual in the time of Trump, but there is also a chance of a political swing from red to blue in parts of rural Oregon. “There’s a great deal of energy in eastern Oregon to seek a replacement” for Walden in District 2, said Bill Whitaker, a board member at Oregon Rural Action, in La Grande, Oregon. Walden, who won his last election by 44 points, has had newfound prominence under Trump as the head of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. He has voted 99 percent of the time in line with Trump’s position, and he acknowledged at the Freedom Rally that he’s become a target. “Walden is in a position where he should win, but if all the currents are going against him, he can be beaten,” said Jim Moore, an assistant professor at Pacific University and director of Tom McCall Center for Policy Innovation. “It almost doesn’t matter who the Democrat is, it will matter that he’s a Republican.”

Despite political divisions, the state Legislature actually passes the great majority of its bills with bipartisan support, Moore said. Depending on which candidates come to the fore, ballot measures on gun regulations and unions, issues that will be finalized in July, may overshadow the elections. As in other states, how the midterms play out depends on whether a blue wave materializes, and on what the Republican voters decide they want — a moderate, a Trump candidate, or somebody in-between. “It’s the same discussion as everywhere,” Moore said.

Anna V. Smith is an assistant editor for High Country News.