Democrats regained control of the Oregon House on Tuesday.

They picked up a net gain of four seats, and will enter the 2013 session with a 34 - 26 majority. Three of the four new Democrats elected in these hotly contested races were Working Families Party (WFP) cross-nominees. The fourth, Joe Gallegos, entered his race late and did not participate in the WFP nomination process.

The legislature will be different in other ways as well. Mike Schaufler, a “Blue Dog” Democrat from House District 48, will be gone, and Jeff Reardon (D / WFP) will be in his place. Given Mr. Schaufler’s former position at the right flank of the Democratic caucus, one can argue that his departure will also shape the nature of how the now-majority party will govern in the 2013 session.

House District 51

By the numbers, House District 51 was the most challenging district of all the seats that changed hands on Tuesday. House District 51’s voter registration advantage matched that of HD29 and HD30, but the district lagged in the Democratic Performance Index by at least a point behind the two races above it. In other words, Shemia Fagan’s target voters tended to be less frequent, sporadic voters.

This is where an aggressive field campaign comes in. In the eight weeks before the election, the WFP knocked on 12,892 doors and had 6,307 conversations with voters for Shemia. On top of that, the Fagan campaign itself knocked on a whole lot of doors starting in the early summer and continuing through election day. By the end of this race, our target voters could not miss the fact that there was an election, knew all about Shemia Fagan, and they often knew why we were at their doorsteps before we opened our mouths. This is a good sign.

The urban-rural divide

The whole urban-rural divide is still a huge issue, Clackamas sits just dead center on that divide.

— John Lee, Chairman of Clackamas County Republican Party

Both of the races into which the WFP invested resources this year were partly in Clackamas County. This was by design. It is no secret that Tea Party affiliated groups such as Americans for Prosperity and the Oregon Transformation Project have targeted Clackamas County. They have been investing big in local politics, and they scored successes in several local races.

Many of the flash points that have driven the political rancor in the region are rooted in the tense interplay between a growing metropolitan area on the one hand and towns wishing to preserve the rural nature of their communities on the other. The fights over light rail, the Damascus city plan, and “Portland Creep” are a few examples.

Clackamas County is a mixed rural-urban area. It is also mixed politically. On Nov. 6, Clackamas County voters went 50 - 47 percent for Barack Obama, but elected strongly conservative candidates in many down ballot races. Clackamas County will clearly continue to be a battleground for Oregon politics in the future, and the WFP firmly believes it will be necessary to continue to build capacity and work for candidates in this region of the state.

Message (and messengers) matter

Our field team frequently reported a common experience on the doors: the Working Families Party message and our nomination of Shemia Fagan made a difference in their thinking about her as a candidate. Our field team quickly learned that the most effective message on the doors was one that, 1) Explained what the WFP is, 2) explained why the WFP was supporting Shemia, 3) discussed the issues that mattered to voters, and 4) confirmed support for Shemia.

It is not a surprise that many voters are disillusioned with the political status quo, but we found that the WFP message opened reluctant doors started conversations with voters that may have otherwise tuned out the election. At the WFP we often talk about the power of providing “third party validation” to our cross-nominees. The WFP is an independent, grassroots party that applies our own set of bread-and-butter economic filters to evaluating the candidates. In this most recent election cycle, our filter led us to take on and defeat a Democratic incumbent in the primary, and a Republican incumbent in the general. On the doors we found that this brand of “call it like we see it” economic populism appealed to many voters who otherwise might be inclined to shut out politics all together.

This is anecdotal evidence, to be sure. However, the experience of our field team is not inconsistent with past polling that the WFP has done in Oregon which showed the appeal of the WFP message, particularly with working class and independent voters. Additionally, the WFP’s statewide election results in 2008 and 2010 also point to a pattern of the WFP message appealing to these voters. As you will see, our statewide results show a pattern of support being strongest in some of Oregon’s most rural counties.

On top of that, you can sometimes assess the impact your message and messengers are having on a race based on the reaction one gets from the opponent. If this is our measure, then surely Patrick Sheehan’s campaign decision to launch an attack directly at the Working Families Party and our field organizers is a sign that our work was showing signs of effectiveness. In one of the wackiest campaign mailers I have ever seen, Mr. Sheehan resorted to a level of red-baiting that would have made made Joe McCarthy proud. Given the fact the Cold War had ended when Patrick Sheehan was only 15 years old, his attacks seemed strangely out of place. But again, when your opponent is attacking both your message and your messengers it is a good sign you are making an impact on the race.

Steve Hughes is director of the Oregon Working Families Party.

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