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All Over The Map: Ready for a summer vacation on the Idaho Coast?

A group of Oregon conservatives wants to make the state's rural counties part of Idaho rather than the Beaver State. (Courtesy of Move Oregon's Borders to Form a Greater Idaho)

In a move that echoes Washington Territory’s separation from Oregon Territory in the 1850s – only this time, in reverse – a group wants to expand the border of Idaho all the way to the Pacific Ocean.

Move Oregon’s Borders For a Greater Idaho was created in Oregon in 2019. Members want to fold most of rural Oregon’s counties into an expanded Idaho – but this is not a secession movement like the effort to create the state of Liberty in Eastern Washington, or the state of Jefferson in Southern Oregon.

The idea is that the majority of residents of rural counties in Oregon are deeply conservative and Republican, and have far more in common politically and culturally with all of very red Idaho than they do with the very blue Portland area. Just how red is Idaho? Republican Donald Trump carried the state in 2020 with 64% of the vote; Democrat Joe Biden carried Oregon with 56% in the same election.

According to the group’s website: “The Left has far more control over the ways that Oregonians are educated and persuaded than the Right does. They control K-12, universities, Facebook, Google, media, and newspapers. Plus Californians are moving in faster than you can educate them. Liberals love ‘educating’ voters too.”

The movement traces its beginnings to a dinner held at Ponderosa Pizza in La Pine, Oregon, south of Bend. Vietnam War-era Air Force veteran and current firearms instructor Mike McCarter was there, and has emerged as spokesperson and main proponent in his role as president of the organization.

“Culturally, we are closer aligned with the people of Idaho than we are with the urban folks in the Northwest part of Oregon,” McCarter, who grew up in the Portland area, told KIRO Radio earlier this week.

“Borders between states are arbitrary. They’re not cast in stone,” McCarter said. “And so, because the U.S. Constitution actually has an Article IV, the instructions of what needs to take place, this is a logical move.”

If they are successful, the remaining portions of Oregon would be just the northwest part of the state, or, essentially, the Willamette Valley and northwest coast – where 80% of Oregon’s population lives. One member of the U.S. House of Representatives would move from the Oregon to the Idaho delegation, and Idaho would become the third largest state in the continental U.S. in terms of area, after Texas and California.

That’s a pretty big state. It’s also a pretty big if.

The group made news this week because on Monday they addressed members of the Idaho legislature about their plans. Last November, thanks to petition efforts, advisory measures appeared on the ballot in four Oregon counties, with two of those counties voting in favor of leaving the Beaver State for the Gem State, and two voting to remain.

A giant Idaho is a longshot, which Mike McCarter admits, but the concept is intriguing for a couple of reasons. One is that the expanded potato state comes close in size and scope to what the Oregon Territory looked like when it was created by Congress in 1848 (from what had been Indigenous territory for millennia).

The second reason is that the effort feels slightly reminiscent of the early 1850s, when borders were more fluid, and settlers on the north side of the Columbia River asked Congress to create a new territory. Those settlers thought Oregon City – the old capital of Oregon Territory — was too far away, and that the politicians there didn’t care about them.

McCarter says the need for a super-sized Idaho comes down to fundamental differences between the culture and values of urban people versus people in rural areas, and how those differences play out politically.

“The urban folks have a particular agenda that involves taking care of their situations, i.e., the homeless, the movement of people, the density issues, and stuff like that,” McCarter said. “And they craft laws to answer those questions. Well, it does not apply to rural areas.”

McCarter also points to economic differences, such as Idaho’s observance of the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, versus Oregon’s state-mandated rate of more than $11 an hour, and to regulatory differences as well – though, unlike Washington, both Idaho and Oregon have a state income tax.

“Idaho handles their businesses different than Oregon does. Idaho’s business regulations are much less, their taxes are less,” McCarter said. “We believe that once the rural Oregon businesses become involved in that, all of a sudden now you see a boom in business. You see a boom in people going to work.”

“After this COVID situation, Idaho is one of the fastest states to recover from being shut down of any state in the Union, and then that similar process would take place in rural Oregon,” McCarter said. “Not to mention that all of a sudden, Idaho would have a deep water ocean port in Coos Bay. And think what could that do for a landlocked state, because they handle their timber differently, they handle their agriculture differently, the restrictions, and so on.”

In response to an email about what might change for operations or for customers should Coos Bay become part of Idaho rather than Oregon, John Burns, CEO of Oregon International Port of Coos Bay, told KIRO Radio in a reply, “….we don’t really have anything to share with you on this matter. We are not engaged in this process. We are the Oregon International Port of Coos Bay, and until that changes, we can’t and won’t add to the discussion.”

Volunteers with Move Oregon’s Borders are collecting signatures in their respective Oregon counties for more advisory votes, and five more are already scheduled for May. Ultimately, any shifting of Oregon’s and Idaho’s borders would be up to the legislatures in both states and to the United States Congress to approve.

Efforts to make a red state redder (and, of course, whiter, too) and a blue state bluer seem like a new level of gerrymandering. It also seems to miss classically American opportunities to make the increasing diversity in the United States – in all its forms – a form of cohesion and strength rather than a means of deepening differences and prolonging cultural and political conflict. But McCarter says, in his experience, urban people aren’t willing to engage in a meaningful dialogue.

“In Oregon, under the current situation, the urban folks aren’t willing to listen to much,” McCarter said. “In fact, they’ve come out and said that, well, you know, ‘Eastern Oregon is kind of like our playground. We like to go camp, fish, hunt and recreate and stuff like, and then we go back home.’”

Beyond the Beaver State, Move Oregon’s Borders also has its eyes on other rural conservative counties to invite to join Mega-Idaho, in Northern California as well as in southeastern Washington – specifically, Asotin, Columbia, and Garfield.

And while it may be a stretch to picture a summer weekend on the scenic and rugged Idaho Coast, it’s downright impossible to imagine any Evergreen State county, particularly one with a conservative majority, voluntarily agreeing to do anything that would mean having to pay Idaho state income tax.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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