Yamhill may soon become a bellwether county in national politics

Conservative activists and a new brand of candidates make Yamhill County a good place to watch how shifting politics play out

February 18, 2022 5:30 am

Yamhill County has grown and diversified, and so has its politics. (Yamhill County)

Yamhill County has long been a neglected bastion of Republican politics in Oregon, relatively moderate in its conservatism and safely distant in its residents’ minds from the liberal excesses of metro Portland.

It’s a county that used to be taken for granted by Republican strategists and written off by their Democratic counterparts in statewide and Congressional elections. Cities and school districts in the county have pretty much charted their own pragmatic paths in local politics.

The McMinnville School District has been lauded for its stellar graduation rate, career-technical offerings and its success with Latino students. And Yamhill’s cities have gentrified in sync with its wineries and tasting rooms.

But as the shadow of suburban Portland crept over the county’s northern hills, a new breed of conservative activists has used the fear of Portlandia to muster troops for a hard right takeover of local politics.

That was evident with the sudden and unexpected battle over racial justice issues in the Newberg School District. What began with the election of a conservative majority on the school board quickly led to the banning of Black Lives Matter signs and the subsequent firing of its superintendent.

In response, community members opposed to those actions launched an effort to recall two of the school board members most prominent in those decisions. But the campaign soon became a test of larger issues, of Portlandia versus Old Yamhill, with a kind of last stand dynamic created by a newly-empowered conservative movement manning the ramparts. The defenders of Old Yamhill managed to outspend and defeat the recall proponents with a barrage of last-minute mailers in a conflict that attracted national attention.

Now, recall politics has spilled over into an even higher stakes campaign to recall one of the leaders of the county’s conservative phalanx, County Commissioner Lindsay Berschauer. Signatures were filed earlier this month that will force that recall to the ballot in March.

This will be Newberg again but this time on a countywide battlefield, with many of the same activists on both sides calling for reinforcements.

Still to come: The race for Oregon’s new 6th Congressional district. Yamhill voters comprise only 15% of that district. But they could punch above their weight with a local favorite, state Rep. Ron Noble, likely to be the Republican nominee. This is a district where Democrats hold an edge in registrations but where independents and swing voters could carry the day.

The 6th Congressional District may well produce one of the most contentious and expensive Congressional races in the country, as its outcome could determine the balance of power in the U.S. House.

And, even though Nick Kristof is no longer competing in the Democratic primary for governor, he has already brought national attention to the devastation and deaths of despair that resulted from a dying timber economy and the loss of blue-collar jobs in the county’s rural and small communities.

So this may be the year when Yamhill County becomes not just a battleground but a bellwether, the kind of locale that lures swarms of national reporters to sidle up to old timers at their breakfast booths in local diners.

All the ingredients are in place for this kind of attention.

School board issues, like those in Newberg, have been politicized and nationalized.

Yamhill typifies regions that pollsters define as “rural moving to suburban,” where migrations from and to nearby cities create borderland stresses and tectonic shifts in local politics.

And a hard-right conservative movement will have to come to terms with the reality that districts like the 6th are more likely to send moderates to Congress. While Democrats in the command centers of the party will have to, well, just pay attention to Yamhill for a change.

One other development: There are candidates in both the Republican and Democratic primaries in the new Congressional district who have reportedly made fortunes in the cryptocurrency markets and appear willing to self-fund their campaigns and bypass traditional party donors and endorsers.

Whether these candidates get any traction, they and their kind are likely to be seen as a new force on the horizon of national politics.

So, not only do we have a test of the new and the liberal (Portland) versus the old and conservative (Yamhill) but the unpredictable element of new money, unbeholden to party leaders, now vying for voters’ attention.

Best to book your reservations now for fall seating in your favorite Yamhill eateries.

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Tim Nesbitt

Tim Nesbitt, a former union leader in Oregon, served as an adviser to Governors Ted Kulongoski and John Kitzhaber and later helped to design Measure 98 in 2016, which provided extra, targeted funding for Oregon’s high schools.