Commentary

Oregon, Washington 3rd districts might decide control of U.S. House 

Congressional District 3 in Washington has been considered a safe Republican seat but Democrats have a chance this year 

August 26, 2022 5:30 am

Oregon’s 3rd Congressional District and the 3rd Congressional District in Washington state could help determine control of the U.S. House in the November election. (Getty Images)

Are the two districts most directly facing each other across the Columbia, the third congressional districts of Washington and Oregon, really the same kind of district – only on opposite sides?

Control of the U.S. House next year could hinge on the answer. 

Washington’s Congressional District 3, site of a dramatic primary election and possibly a dramatic general election, is ranked by national analysts as a solid Republican district. That’s the same rank as the district facing it most directly across the Columbia River, Oregon’s 3rd district, a solidly blue – Democratic – district. 

The partisanship of Oregon’s 3rd district is undisputed. Rep. Earl Blumenauer, one of the more liberal members of the House, has been reliably re-elected since his first term in 1996. He has scored upwards of 70% of the vote in every general election since 2004, and more than two-thirds before that. Also, state legislators from the district are overwhelmingly Democrats, and the 3rd district votes reliably and overwhelmingly for Democrats for major office. 

That’s a “safe” Democratic district, much as Oregon’s 2nd Congressional District, to the east over the Cascades, is “safe” Republican. 

Drive one of the bridges north across the Columbia, and you enter Washington’s 3rd District, which under current districting runs a few miles east into Skamania County, north not quite to Olympia, and west to the Pacific. About two-thirds of its people live in Clark County, anchored by Vancouver. Nationally, it is described as “solid Republican” by the Cook Political Report and Inside Elections and “likely Republican” by Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball. 

It has been represented for the last dozen years by Republican Jaime Herrera Beutler, a relatively moderate Republican who has worked more on local and regional concerns than on national headlines. Her one significant entry into national controversy, a vote in favor of impeaching then-President Donald Trump, was the pivot behind her primary loss this month. Before her election in 2010, the 3rd district was represented by a Democrat, Brian Baird; for four years before that by Republican Linda Smith, but in the 32 years before her by three Democrats. The district historically swings between the parties.

Herrera Beutler’s general election track record is far different from Blumenauer’s. In 2020, she received 56.4% of the vote, and in 2018 she won with 52.7% – clear wins, but far from landslide territory. And those more recent numbers marked a slide from the elections just before, when she topped 60% in 2016 and 2014. On the state legislative front, the four legislative districts representing Clark County long have had a Republican lean, but Democrats usually have won a significant portion of the seats. 

Another useful measure of partisan lean is the presidential vote. Washington’s 3rd district has been remarkably close in its presidential vote for decades. In modern times, the vote percentage peak in the district was hit by Ronald Reagan in 1984 with a modest 52% (amid a national landslide), and the next best since was won by Democrat Barack Obama in 2008. The district did back Republican Trump, but in 2020 he received 51%, winning by four points – no massive margin. (In Oregon’s 3rd, Democrat Joe Biden won by 51 points.)

Altogether, Washington’s 3rd has the look of a Republican lean, but short of a lock. 

That’s the backdrop for the upcoming contest between new nominees Republican Joe Kent, who beat Herrera Beutler, and Democrat Marie Perez. 

He starts with more money and name identification while she had no major primary contest to raise money. But money is unlikely to decide this race: Millions probably will pour in on both sides. Kent has a compelling story: He was a decorated green beret with years of active service, and his wife died in Syria from an arttack by a suicide bomber. But he also has baggage, including extensive and tight connections to numerous extremist, Christian nationalist and violent groups, and his endorsement by Trump came after hard-line support for the former president and his claims about the 2020 election. Perez is a lower-profile figure.

Former Republican U.S. Representative Tom Davis, a veteran national congressional campaign strategist, remarked about Kent, “The problem for Republicans is you can probably get away with this in 50 districts in the country. But this does not strike me as the kind of district where you don’t pay a price.”

Dave Wasserman of the Cook Political Report has shifted Washington’s 3rd from solid Republican to lean Republican and added that Herrera-Beutler “didn’t offer any support for Kent, who ran with endorsements from Donald Trump, Rep. Matt Gaetz and Michael Flynn and has bashed Kevin McCarthy as part of the ‘establishment.’ And Kent’s far right politics could put the Trump +4 suburban Portland seat in play in November.” 

The reputable FiveThirtyEight aggregate site has listed the district as likely Republican – 97 chances out of 100 – but the number has edged down as of Aug. 14 to 90, in the “deluxe” estimate; in the polls-only version, Kent’s chances are rated at 73, seriously competitive.

This may be a close-fought race, unlike anything Oregon’s 3rd has seen in generations. Democrats now have a serious shot at a pickup here, if they make the effort. 

On July 20, a tweet that prompted an Oregonian debate looked like an election horse race shocker: a projected Republican win in the state’s 4th Congressional District. 

Said one tweeter, “These Oregon ratings are uh interesting.”

The tweet was a map showing Oregon’s 4th Congressional District (in southwest Oregon, including Lane and Benton counties) as a toss-up, but with Republican Alex Skarlatos favored (57.3% to 42.7%) over Democrat Val Hoyle. The map and statistics struck a nerve because Hoyle has been widely regarded as the front-runner in the race, in a district redrawn for this year to favor Democrats. Skarlatos has run and lost in the district before; Hoyle has been elected to statewide office.

“This is a garbage model,” one tweeter wrote. 

It is one model among many, captured at a particular moment. A broader picture with other models and times tells a different story, about that race and others in Oregon. 

The tweeters did at least consider a poll aggregator rather than a single poll. Individual polls, even when well conducted, should be only lightly relied on. An aggregator incorporating a number of polls and other data has stronger predictive value. 

The arresting 4th District result came from Decision Desk HQ, which as of early August still was listing the race as a toss-up, and placed the 5th and 6th districts (in the northern Willamette Valley, on the east and west side respectively) in the same category. Oregon and Michigan were the only two states listed with as many as three toss-up House contests. Every major aggregator lists Oregon’s 1st and 2rd districts as strongly Democratic and the 2nd as strongly Republican.

But the national aggregator take on districts 4, 5 and 6 do vary. 

Over on the site 270 to Win, the picture shifts. There, the Oregon 5th District contest is the only Oregon House seat listed as one of the nation’s “most competitive,” one of 25 with that ranking. Both of the other two relatively competitive districts here were listed as “likely Democratic.” The catch here is that 270 doesn’t list polling numbers and may be relying more on historical data. (Users are allowed to play with the maps interactively, however, which can be entertaining).

One of the most often-cited aggregators, RealClearPolitics, also focuses on the same three Oregon congressional districts, but ranks them differently. There, the 5th Ddistrict is listed as a toss-up, but the 4th is classed as “leans Democratic” and the 6th as “likely Democratic.” Again, not much actual polling data is listed by the site to back up the estimates. 

For more data breakdown, the best source probably is the aggregator that gets more attention than any other: FiveThirtyEight. This site, founded by Nate Silver, lists few tossups and places all six Oregon districts in some kind of leaning category. As elsewhere, the 1st and 3rd are listed as solidly Democratic and the 2nd as solidly Republican. Among the more competitive districts, both the 4th and 6th are considered likely Democratic, and the 5th as leaning Republican.

Do the differences between likely and leaning matter? Statistically, they do; the chances of a Republican win in the 5th are estimated at close to two in three, but a Democratic win in the 6th better than four in five. The editors at FiveThirtyEight would be quick to note, though, that these numbers can change drastically over time. 

They also would note a lack of current polling information. Historical voting patterns are factored in, and as voting registration numbers, and sometimes estimates by political observers. FiveThirtyEight lets you sift through these data sources, however; it offers prediction estimates in variations like “lite” (poll numbers only), classic (some other hard data added in) and deluxe (the kitchen sink, with pundits estimates and more factored in.) And in many House districts, reliable polling information is scarce. FiveThirtyEight is rigorous in scrounging polling information, but it lists only one recommended poll in the 5th District race (which shows the candidates just a point apart, within the margin of error), and no poll information is listed for District 6 at all. 

So, fun as they can be to track, rely on even the aggregators with caution.

On the other hand, all of the aggregators are in agreement that Sen. Ron Wyden is safe for re-election.

And governor? FiveThirtyEight, which cited three polls, gives Democrat Tina Kotek 70 chances out of 100 to win, and Republican Christine Drazan 30; non-aligned Betsy Johnson didn’t register with them. (That is, Kotek gets a rating of 70 in the deluxe aggregate model; in the classic model she gets 67, and in the lite version 73.) RealClearPolitics didn’t weigh in at all. 

The bottom line? As we head into late summer, little about this year’s Oregon elections is hard wired. 

 

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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.

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