A History of the Republican Party — The Oregon Story

 

Founding the Party — 1856

Seal of the great State of Oregon
The Seal of the State of Oregon emphasizes its pioneer heritage and loyalty to the Union

Less than two years following the rebirth of the Republican Party in Ripon, Wisconsin, and three years before it would join the Union, the Republican movement reached the Oregon Territory. The first meeting, held in Jackson County in May, concluded with the nomination and election of county officers and adoption of a strong platform declaring freedom throughout the United States — a bit presumptuous, but completely in line with the Oregon spirit. By 20 August, the Republican fire had spread so far that "a number of friends of the Republican cause" met in Albany to organize the Oregon Republican Party. They took steps to organize county and even precinct conventions and to recruit friends of the movement throughout the territory to support candidates for office who were in harmony with the party's aims.

Even so, as the push for statehood, with the attendant campaigns for representation in the Congress, began in earnest in 1857, Republicans did not believe that they had enough support to mount territory-wide campaigns. On the other hand, Democrats, although occupying all the seats of power in the territory, having formed as early as 1852, were splitting over the issue of slavery, providing an ever-so-slight opening for the nascent Republicans.

Oregon Becomes a State

President James Buchanan
President Buchanan signed the bill admitting Oregon to the Union on 14 February 1859

The majority of Democrats, emboldened by the election of James Buchanan in 1856 as the 15th president, a vocal supporter for the expansion of slavery into the territories, loudly advocated that Oregon be admitted as a slave state. The strength of their position seemed confirmed when, despite the defection of many "free-soil" Democrats to support the independent candidacy of G. W. Lawson for territorial representative to Congress, Joseph Lane, an ardent supporter of slavery, soundly won re-election. Even though voters decided to ban slavery in the state Constitution, when Lane, in 1857, submitted it as part of the request for statehood, Congress delayed action for more than a year because of fears that Oregon's delegation, if it continued to be composed of Democrats, would side with the slave power of the party. Oregon's sympathies were further muddied by the ban on settlement of free blacks and mulattoes that had passed by an even larger margin than the ban on slavery. This greatly irritated many Republicans in Congress; it required herculean efforts by a contingent of eleven, led by Eli Thayer of Massachusetts, in the House to overcome opposition by the Republican caucus and finally pass the statehood bill (The bill passed in the Senate, still in the hands of the Democrats, by a more than two-to-one margin). President Buchanan signed the bill on 14 February 1859; news of its admission reached the state by the end of March, setting off great celebrations.

William Seward
Oregon delegates to the 1860 Republican convention supported William Seward, a strong supporter of Oregon statehood in the U.S. Senate

Amidst the transfer of power from territorial authorities to state (anticipating swift action by Congress, Oregon had held elections for governor, secretary of state, treasurer, and legislature a year earlier), both parties held conventions in Salem to nominate new candidates for the House in Congress and select delegates to the respective national conventions; 1860, after all, was a presidential election year. Held one day apart in April — coincidentally, Democrats on the 20th and Republicans on the 21st — the conventions set the tone for what would prove to be a complete reversal of fortune for each party that would last for the next seventy years.

Republican ascendancy

Perhaps realizing that his star was going nova, Lane used the Democrat convention to launch his final bid for glory. In spite of (because of?) the repudiation handed his faction of the party in the statehood vote and the dominant mood among Democrats of the larger northern counties against slavery, he succeeded in selecting Lansing Stout, a recent arrival from California as the Democrat nominee for Congress. The delegates then adopted a resolution recommending Lane for a place on the national ticket. Lane's wish was fulfilled as he joined John Breckinridge as his vice-president running mate on the slave-power Democrat ticket.

David Logan
David Logan lost by only 13 votes in the state's first election to Congress

The Republicans nominated popular Portland attorney David Logan for the state's first member of the House of Representatives and instructed their delegates to the national convention to support William Seward. He had been an unflagging supporter for Oregon statehood and was known for his strong anti-slavery position. Delegates also saw fit to create a state central committee.

At the special election for Congress, held in June, Logan came within sixteen votes of victory, decisively carrying the northern counties of Marion, which had long been a Democrat stronghold, Washington, Multnomah, Yamhill, Clatsop, and Tillamook; the southern portion of the state gave the election to the Democrat Lansing Stout, primarily out of loyalty to Lane. This strong showing by Republicans was an unmistakable sign that the Democrat brand, with its ever-widening split between the slavery/secession and more-or-less pro-Union factions, was rapidly losing its lustre corresponding to the rise of Republican party identification.

Edward Dickenson Baker
Edward Dickenson Baker — U.S. Senator, Civil War leader, namesake of Baker County

The national Republican convention of 1860 selected Abraham Lincoln to be the party's candidate for president, largely because the Oregon delegation, through Horace Greeley (acting by a proxy charged to him by an Oregon delegate unable to make the trip to Chicago), successfully moved the convention to him. In the June election for the state Legislature, Republicans won thirteen seats.

Graph
Neither Republicans nor Democrats have an absolute hold on the state of Oregon

When it convened in September, the Republicans joined forces with Douglas/Northern Democrats to elect the state's two U.S. Senators — Democrat J.W. Nesmith for the long term and Republican Edward Dickenson Baker for the short term — completely thwarting the Lane/Southern faction. The Democrat split and Republican unity delivered the state's first electoral votes in the November election to Abraham Lincoln. Incidentally, in the election of 1912, Republicans returned the favor by splitting between Theodore Roosevelt and William Taft to allow Woodrow Wilson to win even though Republicans held a greater than 3-1 advantage in voter registration.

Republican presidential candidates have won in Oregon 25 of the 40 elections held since statehood, although not since Ronald Reagan's landslide re-election in 1984. Twenty of Oregon's 38 governors have been Republicans.

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