JUST PAST EAST PORTLAND, where Multnomah County and Clackamas County collide, a strange thing happened on Election Day.
Three young Democrats cast aside a decades-old Republican grip on the swath of land from the Columbia River to Estacada, from Portland's easternmost border, through Gresham, Troutdale, and Clackamas. Multnomah County, for the first time in as long as anyone can remember, is entirely blue. Washington County has been trending that way for years, and Clackamas County "is starting to change in that way, also," says Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 503 Political Director Arthur Towers.
In the East Metro area, Brent Barton, a 28-year-old business litigator, toppled Linda Flores, who's held a seat in District 51—from outer Southeast Portland to Estacada—since 2002 (and was preceded by several other Republicans). Just north in District 50, firefighter Greg Matthews knocked longtime representative John Lim out of the seat that straddles Powell in East Multnomah County. And in District 49, sandwiched between Matthews' district and the Columbia River, Lewis and Clark law student Nick Kahl scored the open seat finally vacated by former House Speaker Karen Minnis (her husband John previously held the seat, since 1985).
It's an exciting development, one that gives House Democrats a strong 36-seat majority.
But how did they do it? Did a blue wave of Obama-mania sweep the three into office? As Portland becomes less and less affordable, are the city's stereotypically liberal residents moving into the East Metro area, turning it blue? Or were these three candidates the right candidates at the right time—guys willing to work their butts off just when voters, fed up with things like the economy, became willing to listen?
Barton, for his part, has a matter-of-fact attitude about what happened: "We don't know yet."
Precinct-by-precinct data won't be available until election results are certified later this month, so it's unknown how votes in the John McCain-Barack Obama race—or the Jeff Merkley-Gordon Smith Senate race, which "might be a more telling statistic," says Towers—line up with the legislative results.
That doesn't mean political observers and insiders don't have theories.
"I have some good guesses based on polling data," Barton says. In his district, presidential candidates McCain and Obama were "essentially tied, always within the margin of error." When the precinct numbers come in, Barton expects to discover that McCain and Obama were "very close to a tie" in District 51, and that Smith beat Merkley, which makes "the blue wave explanation a little simplistic."
Michele Rossolo, director of the House Democrats' Future PAC, agrees: "The Obama wave probably isn't as pronounced out there," she says.
But one of the factors that helped propel Obama into office—the cruddy economy—definitely played a role in the East Metro races, says Jefferson Smith, representative-elect for House District 47, just west of Kahl's new territory. (Smith also heads up the Bus Project, which knocked on 30,000 doors in the East Metro area.)
The Democratic wins were thanks in part to "the economy plus hard work," Smith says.
"I do think it was part of a growing national awareness that we can't run an economy by rewarding the powerful at the expense of the powerless and expect it to work out." Flores, Minnis, "and one of their cohorts, John Lim, shared that philosophy," Smith explains. "And it led us all the way to the second biggest economic crisis of the last two centuries."
With that backdrop, the messages these three candidates carried made a big difference, says SEIU's Towers.
"All three did a really good job speaking to issues that affect working families," he says, hitting on health care costs, consumer protection, school funding, and job creation, areas that are at the top of people's minds during economic turmoil.
"We worked extraordinarily hard and ran a very good campaign, and focused on the kitchen table issue that people in the district care about," Barton says. The "vast majority" of people he spoke with, he adds, never asked what party he was from. "Ideas matter. People in my district tend to vote person, not party."
Indeed, in the doors he knocked on, Kahl says he found "lots of people who were left behind" as the economy began plummeting.
"The current economic conditions opened a bunch of people's eyes to the reality that government can actually make their lives better, can work to do the things it used to do," Kahl adds. The area used to "have a lot of opportunities, and those opportunities have disappeared. People were ready to believe that we can get back to at least where we were. And they were willing to take a chance on some unlikely candidates."
On the demographic question, it's clear that there's been "significant migration" eastward as families seek out affordable homes, Represenative-Elect Smith notes (he points toward shifting school enrollment as one indicator). But it's unclear if that movement has shifted the area's politics—or if Barton, Matthews, and Kahl were simply able to tap into residents' values.
The candidates were definitely able to tap into an increased base of registered Democratic voters—whether those voters were newcomers or not. In all three districts, the Democratic voter registration advantage increased; in Barton's district, Democrats even flipped the scales, going from a registration disadvantage two years ago to a registration advantage.
Meanwhile, groups from SEIU to the Bus Project were on the ground, knocking on voters' doors. "Some of the hardest campaigners in Oregon were there," Rossolo notes.
Kahl's district had the strongest Democratic advantage, Rossolo says—"it was open, and such a blue seat," she says—but he still put in the time. "The way we executed this thing on the ground was fantastic," Kahl says. "We had a strong grass roots effort. I knocked on almost 14,000 doors and we had tens of thousands more doors done by volunteers. We talked to voters, and I talked to voters personally. When you look at Brent and me and Greg, you look at the amount of work we did individually reaching out to voters one on one, you can't underestimate the value of that."
In District 50, Matthews is "literally Mr. Gresham," well known in his district as the firefighter, former cop, and emcee of community events, Rossolo explains. Yet his campaign still "knocked, called, or contacted 100,000 voters. So you get a situation where there's multiple calls, multiple door knockings, just a really incredible campaign effort out there."
And Barton—who edged out Flores by roughly 1,000 votes in a race where just under 27,000 people voted—"just went out there and hustled," says Rossolo.
Plus voter registration and outreach "were focused," says Smith. "And those were things that, when you add it to the first few layers of the cake"—the economy, the candidates, and their messages—"help get the cake a little higher than usual."
"As it turned out, those two additional layers really mattered."