Oregon Republicans sue over new congressional districts

A state Senate committee meeting on redistricting during a legislative special session on Monday, Sept. 20, 2021. (Amanda Loman/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

Four former Republican officials in Oregon sued over newly drawn congressional boundaries, alleging that legislative Democrats created a “clear, egregious partisan gerrymander.” 

The suit, filed in Marion County Circuit Court late Monday, claims that Democrats ignored required criteria for redistricting to ensure Democratic dominance in congressional elections as Oregon gets a sixth seat in the U.S. House. They said legislators didn’t maintain existing political or geographic boundaries by keeping cities, counties and census blocks as whole as possible.

Under maps approved last month by the Legislature and Gov. Kate Brown, Democrats would hold a significant advantage in four of the six congressional districts. Republicans would have one safe district in eastern Oregon, and the 5th Congressional District, which includes a small portion of Portland and stretches across the Cascades to Bend, could be considered a tossup.

The Republican plaintiffs, led by former Secretary of State Bev Clarno, contend that a potential 5-1 Congressional split doesn’t reflect the state, where Republican candidates for governor or president typically receive at least 40% of the vote. 

“Oregon’s political landscape could not possibly justify such a stark difference in Democrat and Republican congressional outcome,” the complaint said. 

The complaint asks the court to block the new congressional maps and draw new boundaries. It doesn’t apply to the redrawn legislative districts approved last month. 

Former House Speaker Larry Campbell, former House GOP leader Gary Wilhelms and James Wilcox, former mayor of the Dalles, joined Clarno in the suit.

While the complaint was filed in state court in Salem,, the case will be heard by a panel of five retired judges. The panel can reaffirm the Legislature’s maps or opt to create their own and must act by Nov. 24. If either party appeals, the Oregon Supreme Court would have until Jan. 3, 2022, to affirm an existing map or Feb. 7, 2022, to draw new boundaries. 

Others have until the end of the day Tuesday to file their own lawsuits against the new congressional maps. Critics of legislative maps have until Oct. 25 to sue.  

No legal challenge to Oregon’s congressional boundaries have succeeded during the four decades in which the National Conference of State Legislatures has tracked redistricting lawsuits. 

In 1981, the Legislature’s redrawn congressional boundaries were not challenged, though legislative maps had to be redrawn because of a successful lawsuit. In 1991 and 2001, the Legislature and governor failed agree on maps, and congressional districts were set by courts. And in 2011, legislators created congressional maps that weren’t challenged.

This year’s redistricting work began with hope that legislators would replicate the bipartisan spirit of 2011. This time, House Speaker Tina Kotek agreed to give Republicans an equal number of seats on the House’s redistricting committee in exchange for a promise that they wouldn’t disrupt the legislative session by denying quorums, as they have several times in the past few years.

Democrats reacted negatively. U.S. Rep. Kurt Schrader told Politico it was “like shooting yourself in the head” and Rep. Peter DeFazio called it “an abysmally stupid move.” 

As the deadline approached for the Legislature to draw new districts, Kotek dissolved her redistricting committee and created a new three-member congressional redistricting committee with two Democrats and one Republican. 

After the Legislature finished its redistricting session, Kotek praised legislators who worked on the plans. 

“Against some incredible odds, we got the job done for the people of Oregon,” she said in a statement. 

Oregon House GOP leader Christine Drazan welcomed the lawsuit.

“Gerrymandering is cheating,” she said in a statement. “Oregon Democrats want a map that protects incumbents and silences the voices of Oregonians. This challenge is an opportunity for the courts to fix the political gerrymandering and create maps that truly represent Oregon.”

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