PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — On paper, Oregon’s newly created 6th Congressional District would appear to lean toward Democrats.
Its boundaries, drawn by the Democratic-controlled Legislature during redistricting last year after the 2020 census, set it up as a relatively safe seat for the party. It includes the state capital Salem and parts of Portland’s affluent southwestern suburbs. And while it also spans rural areas across a broad swath of the Willamette Valley, President Biden would’ve carried it by about 13 points.
Registered Democratic voters outnumber Republicans, and many of those voters are energized by the issue of abortion.
Analysts point to those structural advantages as favoring Democrat Andrea Salinas, a state representative and former congressional staffer, over Republican Mike Erickson, a businessman who’s running for Congress for the third time.
But the GOP has capitalized on stubbornly high inflation, crime and dissatisfaction with the party in power.
“It’s a much closer race than would be expected, given the demographics and the partisan makeup of that district,” said Christopher Stout, associate professor of political science at Oregon State University.
A population boom made Oregon one of just six states to gain an additional seat in the U.S. House following the 2020 census. The state’s population jumped by more than 10% in the past decade to 4.2 million people, giving it a new congressional district for the first time in 40 years.
That boom was driven in part by an increase in the state’s Latino population, which grew 31% between 2010 and 2020, census data shows. Parts of the three counties with the largest Latino populations in the state are included in the new 6th District.
Democrat Salinas is Latina and often tells the story of her father’s immigration to the U.S. from Mexico. She’s one of two candidates running to be Oregon’s first Latina elected to Congress, along with Republican Lori Chavez-DeRemer in the 5th District.
Nationally, about two-thirds of Latino voters backed Biden in the 2020 election, according to AP VoteCast, while about a third supported Trump. That’s consistent with how Latinos have voted in other recent elections, according to AP VoteCast and polling from the Pew Research Center. But in some states, the numbers were different: For example, 45% of Latinos in Florida voted for Trump, along with 42% in Nevada, VoteCast shows.
“I would be surprised if Latinas and Latinos broke heavily toward Erickson,” said OSU’s Stout, whose research includes racial and ethnic politics. “I don’t think that Erickson has the same ties to those communities that Salinas has.”
Analysts say the biggest question this midterm cycle will be whether voters prioritize abortion or inflation on the ballot.
An AP-NORC poll conducted in July found more Americans disapprove than approve of the Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade, 53% to 30%. And a June AP-NORC poll found a rapid increase in the percentage of Americans naming abortion as a top issue after the decision—but the same poll found even greater percentages of Americans naming inflation or personal finances as top issues.
Republicans have seized on those concerns along with the low approval ratings of Democrats President Biden and Oregon Gov. Kate Brown.
“Having the most important statewide elected official in your state be so deeply unpopular is just a real drag on any Democrat who’s running,” said pollster John Horvick, senior vice president at DHM Research.
“There’s lots of headwinds for Salinas,” Horvick said. But the issue of abortion gives her “an opportunity to talk about something other than crime and homelessness and inflation.”
Salinas, who describes herself on her campaign website as an “unapologetic champion for abortion access,” has attacked Erickson on his anti-abortion stance.
The issue of abortion has proved tricky for Erickson, who has been dogged by past media reports from 2008 in which a woman he used to date alleged that he gave her money for an abortion in 2001. The reports hurt his second campaign for the House that year, which he lost to Democrat Kurt Schrader.
Erickson said he gave the woman $300 for what he believed was medical help. He said that he dropped her off at a doctor’s office but didn’t know she was getting an abortion.
“I’ve never asked anybody to get an abortion,” Erickson told The Associated Press.
In a phone interview, Erickson said he thinks there should be exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother. He also said that he wouldn’t support the federal abortion ban introduced by South Carolina’s Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham.
“I wouldn’t support Lindsey Graham’s national abortion proposal. I would say no to that,” Erickson told AP. “I think the Supreme Court has made a decision that the federal government should not be in the business of making decisions for abortion for people across this country.”
While abortion remains legal in Oregon, Salinas has echoed national Democrats’ warnings about a GOP-backed federal abortion ban.
“I think there’s reason for people to be afraid in this district that they will lose access to abortion care,” she told AP. She said she would support nationwide protections for abortion.
Both candidates will have to win over independent voters, who outnumber Republicans and Democrats in the district. Approximately 167,000 nonaffiliated voters are registered there, compared to about 148,000 Democrats and 122,000 Republicans, according to data from the Oregon Secretary of State.
Democrats have made abortion the centerpiece of their midterm messaging in the hopes it will continue to energize voters as it did over the summer after the Supreme Court decision. In an August statewide election, traditionally conservative Kansas voted in favor of abortion rights, and the issue netted Democrats better-than-expected results in some special elections.
“Abortion is different than any other issue we look at because of the intensity that people feel about it, particularly women,” said Elaine Kamarck, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and public policy lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. “Intensity is what gets people to get up on a rainy day and go out and vote.”
This story has been updated to correct the spelling of of the last name of Elaine Kamarck.
Claire Rush is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Follow her on Twitter: @ClaireARush