Democrats' Surge Remaking Oregon's Political Map

Article excerpt

Byline: David Steves The Register-Guard

SALEM - They signed up by the tens of thousands as Democratic voters, many of them fleeing the Republican Party or giving up their status as independents.

But now, two months after Oregon's historic presidential primary that helped decide the Democratic nomination, have those party switchers re-registered, returned to their old folds? Not exactly.

The Democrats kept the 102,000 newly registered voters who signed up this year before the May primary. And since then, 3,500 more Oregon voters have re-registered as Democrats.

The Democrats' jump in voter registration was driven by interest in the high-profile contest between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton - contrasted against the low-drama nominating vote for Republican John McCain, who locked up his party's nod months before Oregon's GOP primary. Given Oregon's closed primary system, it was necessary to register with one of the parties to receive ballots with Democratic or Republican candidates from which to choose.

Those races are history, but these newlyregistered Democrats may have remade Oregon's political map for many elections to come. Statewide, Democrats now enjoy a 10 percent voter registration edge over the Republicans - up from their 4 percent lead in January.

With the November general election looming, partisans and political observers are debating whether these newly registered Democrats will vote the party line up and down the ticket - or vote at all after they've made their choice for president.

Among Lane County's Republicans-turned-Democrats, Peggy Bates plans to switch back to the GOP while Mary Brennan now considers herself a Democrat. But both women plan to vote independent of their party affiliation when it comes to November and future elections.

"I vote for the person I think is best qualified, be it Democrat or Republican," said Bates, who lives in Eugene. Brennan, of Swisshome, said she intends to vote "for the person rather than the party" in future elections.

Oregon State University political scientist Bill Lunch said Oregon voters like to regard themselves as independent minded, even if actual voting data doesn't back this self-image for most of them. He said registered Republicans tend to vote Republican 90 percent of the time and that party loyalty among Democrats has sharpened since the days of the "Reagan Democrats" when one in four members of the party crossed over to back the GOP's 1980s standard bearer and fellow down-ticket Republicans.

"In the great majority of cases, the people who re-registered as Democrats, I'd say more than 80 percent will stay there," said Lunch, the chairman of OSU's political science department.

The Democrats' gain in registered voters spreads across the state. As a result, Democrats saw their voter-registration numbers erase the Republicans' advantage this year in six House, four Senate and one congressional district. The reversals took place in suburban Portland- and Salem-area districts as well as in Central and Southern Oregon and around Mount Hood. …