Oregon’s new congressional district has a diversity that likely limits a lean too far one direction

Ranging from urban areas to rural country, the 6th Congressional District has three constituencies

December 21, 2021 5:19 am

Hearings are scheduled in May in Portland to consider city government reforms. (Amanda Loman/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

When Stephen Colbert hosted his satiric political talk show some years back, he often profiled a congressional district somewhere around the country, describing its particular characteristics and enthusiastically declaring it the “Fighting 17th!” Or whatever it was.

Built into the gag was the idea, often valid, that a given congressional district actually has specific and unique character apart from the red-blue political. It would be a place where people have something in common, and maybe have a shared history.

That would be difficult to find anywhere a new congressional district is being formed, as one will be the coming year in Oregon.

That new district, owing to population growth reflected in the 2020 census, will be the 6th Congressional District. (As for the politics, in 2020 the new 6th’s precincts voted 55% for Joe Biden and 42% for Donald Trump.)

Some of Oregon’s districts – referring here to those just created for the next decade – do have a nature that allows for an easy shorthand description. The 2nd district is easy: the vast wide open and mostly arid spaces of eastern and part of southwestern Oregon, primarily agricultural economically. (Geographically, it is one of the largest congressional districts in the country.)

The 3rd is almost as easy: A central Portland urban area with some Columbia River frontage to the east. The 1st is more split between central city and suburbia (in Washington County) and more rural river and Pacific Ocean frontage.

The 4th includes the smaller Eugene and Corvallis urban areas together with more thinly populated areas southwest to the ocean.

The first is heavily Republican, the other three clearly Democratic.

The remaining two districts are more complicated, and they will be at least in theory the most politically competitive (which makes them unusual nationwide).

The revised 5th Congressional District, which has run from south Portland to below Salem with an arm reaching west to the Pacific, will include most of its old core area but lose Salem and the coast and swing its arm instead across the Cascades to pick up the Bend area.

The new 6th Congressional District will run from southwest Portland with a slice of Washington County, south through Yamhill, and include the Salem area. The new 6th, then (somewhat like the 5th), will include three distinct pieces: The Portland metro piece (on the southwest side, including Tigard, Tualatin and Sherwood); Yamhill and Polk counties, which include rural areas and small and mid-sized cities, and the Salem area, a mid-sized urban area with an identity distinct from the other two.

Most of the land area will be in Yamhill and Polk counties, but more than two-thirds of the votes will come from urbanized Washington and Marion.

This is a geographically coherent area (Highway 99 runs like a string through the middle of most of it, except Salem) but most people here probably won’t think it fits together.

The northern reach near Portland, where almost half of the people live, think of themselves as Portland metro people and may be a little discomfited jostled in with those non-urbanites. This suburban area touching on southwest Portland, including much of southeastern Washington County, will include more than a third of the district’s voters, but well shy of half, not enough to control election decisions outright. A candidate still would need to pick up additional support in other areas to win.

The cities of Salem and Keizer together have about 218,000 people, just under a third of the new congressional district, which is less than the Portland metro section but enough to provide an essential difference in the vote totals.

And the Yamhill County and most of Polk County see themselves as separate from either Portland or Salem. Yamhill and Polk together have almost 200,000 people, but about 25,000 of those Polk people are in West Salem. Small town Polk and Yamhill make up about a quarter of the new district.

These are three distinct constituencies, and all have enough people that a candidate will ignore any of them at their peril.

That can be a good thing. The new 6th isn’t likely to be a district encouraging or even allowing (in its representative) much extremism of any sort. The need to work with varied constituencies may lead to a respect for compromise.

If the 6th becomes a “fightin’ sixth,” that may be because it holds its low-level fights on an internal and low-key basis, and rewards representation that’s steady and stable. Maybe that’s an optimistic view, but it’s what the numbers and geography seem to say.

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Randy Stapilus

Randy Stapilus has researched and written about Northwest politics and issues since 1976 for a long list of newspapers and other publications. A former newspaper reporter and editor, and more recently an author and book publisher, he lives in Carlton.