PENDLETON - In keeping with the national party's goal of competing in elections at every level, the Oregon Democratic Party voted at its quarterly meeting at Wildhorse Resort and Casino last weekend to remind party bosses in the Willamette Valley not to forget about issues important outside urban Oregon.
Oregon Democrats have had success getting their candidates elected - the state Senate, governor's office, a majority of the congressional delegation and one of two U.S. Senate seats are all in the hands of Democrats - but most support comes from urban areas on the Interstate 5 corridor.
Getting the message out to rural and conservative voters in the northeast and southeast reaches of the state is essential to building a grass-roots network, officials agreed.
And that's the goal of the new chairman of the national party, former Vermont governor and presidential candidate Howard Dean, said Kelly Steele, a spokesman for Oregon Democrats.
"We saw in the last cycle a fair amount of activism in areas of the state where Democrats have traditionally not been as competitive," Steele said, noting Pendleton elected a Democratic mayor in 2004, Phil Houk. The mayor's race is officially non-partisan.
A rural caucus will help steer the party's platform toward small-town and rural concerns, Steele said, like economic development, education, national security and the party's No. 1 domestic agenda item: health care.
The details of the rural caucus will be agreed upon at the state party's next meeting in July, he said. The state party also plans to organize a caucus devoted to veterans and military families.
Eastern Oregon Democrats are thrilled with the prospect, saying the end goal will be to target more money to races in rural areas and ultimately to unseat U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River.
"We really want to compete at every level," said Pat Ackley of Bend, chairwoman of the 2nd Congressional District Democratic Party. Given some time and money, rural Oregonians can be convinced the party is looking out for their interests, she said. But Ackley isn't overly optimistic about taking on Walden yet. The 2nd District covers about two-thirds of the state, and Walden has won easily in past elections.
"It's formidable, no question about it," she said.
Steve Bucknum, Crook County Democratic Chairman, has been the driving force behind the rural caucus. One important function of the caucus will be to steer dollars into local and legislative races, elevating the profile of rural Democrats.
"Some of it is public relations," he said.
Just competing in as many races as possible is good strategy, said Ben Talley, chairman of the Umatilla County Democrats.
"It helps drain off the other party's resources," he said.