Every year, people from all over the world gather in Pendleton, a city of 17,000 in northeastern Oregon, for the Pendleton Round-Up, one of the country’s largest rodeo events.
With that in mind, all three candidates for Oregon’s next governor traveled to Pendleton last week to mingle with potential voters.
As more than 50,000 people and their pets flock to the city each year, so do political candidates from across Oregon, keen to increase their presence ahead of the next election. This practice has lasted for decades but has gained traction this year.
That’s because this year’s race to replace Democratic Gov. Kate Brown at the end of her last term could be the closest contest in years, with three candidates — Democrat Tina Kotek, Republican Christine Drazan and non-party candidate Betsy Johnson — compete for support.
Kotek and Johnson performed at the Cowboy Breakfast, where hundreds of people lined up on a cold Friday morning while soft country music played in the background.
While Brown relaxedly ate pancakes, the current candidates seemed more focused on wooing potential votes, moving between tables and talking about the issues. Her presence lacked subtlety as staff wore bright campaign shirts amidst the Western flair.
Johnson drew on her experience representing a rural district in Clatsop County, west of the Cascades.
“I’m familiar with rural Oregon vocabulary,” she told OPB. “In the far east of Oregon, an election measure or a candidate can vote one way and it can be wiped out by Multnomah County.”
Kotek, who wears an immaculate black western shirt and cream cowboy hat, said she’s been to Pendleton several times during her campaign and believes a Democrat has a chance to rally votes in an area where conservative candidates routinely dominate.
“I’ve been to many parts of our state during the campaign,” Kotek said. “We are all more successful when the whole country is successful. So I think there will be some people out here who will vote for me.”
The contestants also raced in the Westward Ho! Parade in which campaign signs were affixed to 19th-century-style carriages as they drove through downtown Pendleton as dense crowds cheered on either side.
Drazan, speaking outside her carriage, said problems like addiction and rising homelessness are affecting rural Oregon in a similar way to urban parts of the state.
“In a rural community, the impact can be seen quickly,” Drazan said. “It feels like it’s new (in rural areas).”
The political joy at the Round-Up may prove more important than usual this year. The Cook Political Report recently called Oregon’s gubernatorial election a “smash hit,” and some election experts say the state has won its first non-Democratic governor since Vic Atiyeh in could see the 1980s. The potentially close outcome of the race would be a stark contrast to 2018 when Brown won by 7 percentage points.
Oregon’s rural counties, particularly in the eastern half of the state, have traditionally not influenced many statewide elections. But if the race gets close this year, they could make a difference.
Daniel Costie, an assistant professor of public administration at Eastern Oregon University, said conservative strongholds like Pendleton have opportunities for all candidates. Drazan, he said, wants to make sure eastern Oregon’s conservative voters go to the polls while Johnson and Kotek try to eat into those margins.
Locals who spoke to OPB said they were lucky candidates who took the time to meet and talk to Pendleton residents. Most voters said they had not yet decided who they would vote for. Some were split between Johnson and Drazan.
However, nearly all said that rural Oregon, particularly the eastern half, was not well represented in Salem. It has been nearly 80 years since voters elected a governor from the east of the Cascades.
“You need to get out and see people,” said Sharon Livingston, a Grant County rancher. “We have so little population that we don’t get representation.”
Round-Up gets more political
The Round-Up was a common thread in Mike Thorne’s life.
Thorne recalls the anxiety he felt as a first grader, waiting for his parents to pick him up from school so he could go to the round-up. His father was Round-Up President and Thorne eventually joined the event’s board of directors. His son competed in the rodeo and his daughter was a member of the round-up court.
He also built a political career, representing Pendleton in the state Senate from 1972 to 1991. Thorne said when he was at the Westward Ho! Once elected, he did so more as a parishioner than as a local legislator.
“Round-Up was kind of a part of everything we did, so it was assumed that riding in the Round-Up parade was part of uniting and connecting with people,” he said.
However, he cannot help but notice how this tenor has changed. Campaigns are more open and the Round-Up generally strikes him as much more political than it used to be. Thorne said it feels like candidates are treating it as just another stop on the campaign trail, rather than attending in the spirit of the event.
“Doing something that had a political mark wasn’t really seen as being in line with that original tradition at the time,” he said. “Over time, that has definitely changed.”
It’s not just the presence of candidates. Hints of political leanings were visible throughout much of this year’s round-up.
Campaign signs, t-shirts and buttons for all levels of the office were ubiquitous. In addition to the start of the Westward Ho! Parade, the Harney County Republican party cooking hot dogs and talking politics.
Bill Buermann, a Harney County rancher, said the party has been doing this for years.
“Everyone gets a chance to meet and discuss the candidates,” he said. “We need more representation on the east side of the mountain. We fight against that.”
Vendors at stalls along Main Street sold T-shirts and flags with right-wing slogans, mostly with anti-Joe Biden and pro-2nd Amendment sentiments.
Joseph’s Dustin Lyons was also among this line of sellers. His leatherwork booth was wedged between two Idaho booths that sold merchandise with anti-vaccine slogans, among other things. Lyons, who normally sells at Scottish Highland festivals, said it wasn’t what he expected at the Round-Up.
“It’s disappointing for me,” said Lyons. “I’m not here to spread any political message. I’m here to get people to see my wares, but I’m surrounded by political messages. So far it hasn’t really worked out.”
But the Oregonians still have to get used to this attack, at least until November, because the political race for the next governor is likely to increasingly find its way into everyday life at rodeos and parades.