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Redistricting roils legislative races east of the Cascades

In Oregon politics, the Cascades have served as a political firewall for the past decade.

Democrats and Republicans running for the Oregon Legislature would slug it out in the Portland suburbs, along the coast, spots in the Willamette Valley, and the towns of southwest Oregon.

But east of the mountains was rock-solid red Republican.

Any state lawmaker from The Dalles, Bend and Klamath Falls — and east more than 250 miles to Hermiston, Pendleton, the Wallowas, Baker City, La Grande and Ontario — was sure to have an "R" for Republican party designation in Salem. It was possible to drive nine hours from Hells Canyon in the far northeast to Klamath Lake in the far southwest and never pass through a Democratic district.

Until 2020.

Now, halfway along that route, soon after turning left from U.S. Highway 26 onto U.S. Highway 97 is House District 54 in Bend, represented for the past two years by Democrat Jason Kropf. His election ended Democrats' frustration at a decade of losses to a string of moderate Republicans — Jason Conger, Knute Buehler and Cheri Helt.

Now, redistricting for the 2022 election has scrambled familiar political boundaries across the state, putting old strongholds of each party under siege.

Democrats are looking to hold or expand the 2020 election results that gave them a 37-22 edge in the House and an 18-12 advantage in the Senate.

“Our base is fired up, and we are eager to take our message to voters in November,” said Oliver Muggli, executive director of the Senate Democratic Leadership Fund.

Republicans want to at the very least deny Democrats their current three-fifths supermajorities that allow the party to pass taxes and other financial bills without any Republican votes.

GOP strategists say polls giving outgoing incumbent Gov. Kate Brown poor performance marks will translate into a cool reception for continued Democratic dominance in Salem.

“It is 2022 and we have the worst governor in America, and Oregonians who really aren’t happy with the direction the state is going,” said Bryan Iverson, a Prineville political consultant for Republican races for the Legislature. He's also the husband of House Minority Leader Vikki Breese-Iverson, R-Prineville.

Both Democrats and Republicans, along with much of the media, have used Dave’s Redistricting, a deeply detailed breakdown of political districts across the nation, to estimate odds in the new districts. The nonpartisan website takes a cross-section of records to estimate partisan strength. The result is a rating of which party is favored, D for Democrat or R for Republican, and a percentage partisan tilt.

Redistricting and new calculations have both parties scanning the map for seats to flip or double down to hold. Most of the swing districts are west of the Cascades, with the Salem area, Portland suburbs, the far northwest and Ashland area receiving party leaders' attention.

But after becoming a new battleground in 2020, Democrats are hoping to keep a toehold in the Bend area and expand outward along with the ongoing population growth.

Rebalancing districts would mean populous areas having more seats covering less area. Rural areas would have fewer seats covering larger areas. House District 54 still covers most of Bend and has a D+24 partisan edge. Kropf is seeking re-election and will face Republican Judy Trego.

Just to the north is House District 53, where Rep. Jack Zika, R-Redmond, is the incumbent. Nicknamed "the doughnut district" to describe how it wrapped around Bend, it took in Redmond, part of north Bend, and swung around to pull in Sunriver and La Pine.

Population growth put the old district well over the maximum for each House seat. Mapmakers cleaved off the southern portion. What's left is a district that's gone from R+6 to D+4. Zika announced last November that he wouldn't seek another term.

Bend lawyer Emerson Levy is the Democratic nominee. She gave Zika a close race in 2020 and now competes in a district with a much better shot of going for a Democrat.

Michael Sipe, a north Bend businessman, was the sole Republican primary candidate and will fight Levy to hold the seat for the GOP.

Beyond the immediate Bend area, the stretching and swerving of lines for less populated areas created sometimes troubling musical chairs for GOP lawmakers.

Sunriver had been part of House District 53, held by Rep. Gene Whisnant, R-Sunriver, for 16 years before he retired in 2018. Though a Redmond resident, Zika was still in the same county.

Under the new maps, Sunriver and La Pine are the northern end of the realigned House District 55, a long, skinny swath roughly paralleling Highway 97 all the way to the California border. Rep. E. Werner Reschke, R-Klamath Falls, is the Republican nominee for the new district and the overwhelming favorite to win in November.

Redistricting also lopped off much of the former district of Rep. Daniel Bonham, R-The Dalles. To stay in the House, he would have had to challenge Rep. Greg Smith, R-Heppner, the longest-serving member of the House.

Bonham was thrown a political lifeline of sorts when Sen. Chuck Thomsen, R-Hood River, decided not to seek another term. Bonham switched to the Senate race in the strongly Republican district.

Breese-Iverson won an uncontested primary for the new House District 59. She previously represented House District 55, but did not move.

But redistricting pushed her district north and west, to include all of Crook County, parts of Jefferson County and the northernmost chunk of Deschutes County. Lawrence Jones, a retired state worker from Alaska who now lives in Prineville and is a substitute teacher in local schools, is the Democratic nominee.

In a sign of how redistricting has stretched the acreage of rural districts, Brothers in Deschutes County will be one of the towns in House District 60, which covers six counties in two time zones. Rep. Mark Owens, R-Crane, is running for re-election. No Democrat filed for the race in the overwhelming GOP stronghold.

The full political reckoning in the Central Oregon area won’t be known until 2024, when the Senate District 27 seat of Senate Minority Leader Tim Knopp, R-Bend, will be up for election. Knopp won a tight race in 2020 against Democrat Eileen Kiely of Sunriver.

Despite redistricting, senators like Knopp whose terms aren't up for another two years retain their seats until 2024. But any bid for re-election would be in a more Democratic-tilted district centered around Bend and Redmond.

The marquee race in November will certainly be among a trio of major candidates for governor: Democrat Tina Kotek, Republican Christine Drazan and Betsy Johnson, who is running without party affiliation.

But it will be the race for the Legislature that will determine the mix of lawmakers they will be dealing with for the next two years.