Deschutes County voters

Deschutes County has 137,755 registered voters as of the end of October. The four largest groups are:

Non-Affiliated: 42,621

Republican: 42,516

Democrat: 41,413

Independent Party: 8,267

SALEM — Deschutes County voted a lot more like the Willamette Valley on Tuesday than the rest of Central Oregon.

The county joined Portland in voting no on three key initiatives: a ban on grocery taxes, a repeal of the state’s sanctuary status for immigrants, and a ban on using public funds for abortion. Crook and Jefferson counties voted yes on all three. All three failed.

An affordable housing initiative won in Deschutes County with a higher percentage than the rest of the state. Crook and Jefferson counties voted no.

Republicans Patti Adair and Tony DeBone faced unexpectedly close races for two county commissioner seats over their Democratic rivals.

Democrat Jamie McLeod-Skinner lost the race for the 2nd Congressional District winning in Deschutes County over U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River.

In the end, there was little damage to Republican hegemony in the county. Deschutes County will be represented by a Republican in Congress, an all-Republican delegation in Salem and an all-Republican county commission.

The outcomes were surprising in a county which in 2016 had backed, albeit narrowly, President Donald Trump and returned Walden to office with a comfortable margin.

The votes on the ballot measures and the closeness of some of the races have politicians and political analysts wondering if a political shift in recent years has accelerated or if these are one-time events.

“I do think this is a harbinger of change,” McLeod-Skinner said. “But it’s not just about one party or another. Voters are interested in ideas and solutions. Especially younger voters who don’t slot in with an automatic party affiliation.”

Mark Henkels, a political science professor at Western Oregon University in Monmouth who specializes in state politics, said newer residents were a factor.

“Deschutes County is definitely not as Republican as it once was,” Henkels said. “It starts with Bend. You’re getting a pretty complex economy, with high tech, recreation and the brewery industry. With that growth, you get new people who are naturally not going to be hardcore Republicans. You get more moderate Democrats and moderate Republicans than the days when it was primarily a timber town.”

Henkels said it will take time for academic and political pros to drill down on the numbers.

Oregon turnout — including in Deschutes County — seems to be driven by a desire to curb the influence of President Trump. Hence, Walden won his heavily Republican district by about 57 percent, his lowest share of the vote in 20 years.

Longer-term change is reflected in the numbers.

Once a Republican stronghold, the county’s 137,755 registered voters are now divided into almost equal thirds of Republicans, Democrats and non-affiliated voters. It is the last group that narrowly has the largest share of voters.

State Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, whose district takes in much of the county, said that while Bend is trending more centrist, the votes on ballot measures were more about poor political mechanics than an underlying political shift.

“They weren’t good campaigns from my vantage point,” Knopp said. “They weren’t written well. When a ballot measure is hard to understand, people have unanswered questions. Unanswered questions almost always result in a no vote.”

Adair, who is also chair of the Deschutes County Republican Party, said she wanted to look at precinct-by-precinct numbers before analyzing how the vote went.

“There are 52,000 voters in Deschutes County who are not Republicans or Democrats — the unaffiliated or the other parties — and we have to do a strong job of reaching out to them,” she said. “The Democrats spent a lot of time in Bend this election.”

Adair said the GOP would double down on efforts to attract more voters. For now, she is celebrating a win that overcame a tide of votes for Democrats and their positions on the ballot measures.

“I never give up,” she said. “It’s amazing I won. I was the Trump person. I was county Republican chair. Still, I won.”

Republican control of Deschutes County politics has shown cracks before.

Democrat Judy Stiegler won House District 54 in 2008, the year Barack Obama was elected president. Republicans regained the seat in the 2010 election and have held it since, despite a 6,000-voter registration advantage Democrats have over Republicans.

Democrats thought they had a good chance to flip the House District 54 seat to their column this year. The implosion of Democrat Nathan Boddie’s campaign after allegations of sexual harassment led to a strong showing by Republican Cheri Helt. Democrats have pledged to try again in 2020.

Henkels said while Bend was within Democrat’s reach, the rest of Deschutes County and Central Oregon is another matter.

“This was Bend, I think,” Henkels said of Tuesday’s results. “And there is a lot of space out there beyond Bend.”

— Reporter: 541-640-2750, gwarner@bendbulletin.com

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