PORTLAND – Oregonians could have a rare opportunity to influence a presidential race when casting primary ballots next month, and that’s especially true for Republicans.
Oregon is usually a fly-over state for presidential candidates during primary season, given that the Democratic and Republican nominees are usually decided by the time the state’s mid-spring contest rolls around. With its blue electorate and relatively small number of delegates, the state’s relevance at the primary stage is often moot.
But this year Oregon has clout, especially the state’s minority Republican party.
The GOP’s tiny number of delegates could play a big role in the razor-thin race for delegates between Donald Trump and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. And unlike Oregon Democrats who largely favor Bernie Sanders, Republicans appear more divided about which candidate they prefer.
“We’ve been pumping our chest – Oregon’s relevant now,” said Bill Currier, chairman of the Oregon Republican Party, adding he’s been seeing explosive interest from people wanting to apply to be delegates.
The protracted presidential nominating contest has bolstered Oregon’s relevance on both sides, prompting the remaining five candidates to build grassroots teams throughout the state in recent weeks.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has remained committed to the Democratic race since losing New York this month, but with delegates almost insurmountably stacking against him, attention is building around Oregon’s GOP.
The party eliminated its three superdelegates earlier this month, and so has 28 delegates up for grabs. They will be bound proportionally to the way Republicans vote on May 17. That’s a small, yet potentially crucial number that could help Cruz or Trump clench the 1,237 delegates needed to win the nomination and avoid a contested convention in Cleveland. Ohio Gov. John Kasich lags both men in total delegates.
“I’ve never seen this before,” said Jacob Daniels, Trump’s Oregon campaign manager. “I think the last time Oregon was really relevant as a campaign in the primaries was probably 40 years ago.”
The Trump campaign last week opened its first two Oregon offices – Tigard and Eugene – and Daniels said two more are opening up in the coming weeks. He said they’ve amassed a “very large number” of volunteers, but declined to say how many. He said he’s confident about Trump’s chances in Oregon against Cruz, whose state campaign headquarters is still in the works. Kasich’s local team has a smaller presence.
On the Democratic side, front-runner Hillary Clinton opened her first office last week in Portland and has been endorsed by a handful of the state’s 13 superdelegates, including Gov. Kate Brown and Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum. The Sanders campaign is about to open its seventh location, and recently got his first U.S. Senate endorsement from Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley, also a superdelegate.
“We’re going to be fighting for every delegate. It’s important that we do very well here,” said Monte Jarvis, Sanders’ state director. “We have no intensions of slowing down.”
Ben Gaskins, an assistant professor of political science at Portland-based Lewis & Clark College, said Sanders will almost certainly do well in Oregon, which has a total of 74 delegates on the Democratic side, including superdelegates, while things appear to be leaning toward Cruz on the Republican side and Kasich could also scoop up some support from the state’s more moderate conservatives.
“It’s going to be really vital for the Republican side. Every single delegate matters,” Gaskins said. “Clinton is clearly going to be the (Democratic) nominee … I think Oregon will be a nice symbolic prize for Sanders.”
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