Reagan leaves varied political impact in Oregon

Ronald Reagan’s political legacy in Oregon is mixed.

He carried Oregon in two presidential elections after he lost two previous bids in primaries. But since his re-election in 1984, no other Republican presidential candidate has carried Oregon.

His rise to national prominence inspired many within the Republican Party — and many to join the GOP — but drove others from their lifelong affiliation with the party.

His election let Oregon’s Republican senators gain key positions in Congress, but they ended up opposing some of his policies.

For Reagan, winning Oregon was tough, even though he was governor of next-door California.

His first bid for the presidency in 1968 fell short when he lost Oregon and the Republican nomination to the favorite, Richard Nixon.

Yet Reagan’s campaign enlisted a young Fred VanNatta of Salem, who was starting his own business after working in the Legislature.

VanNatta prepared Reagan’s trips to Oregon and Idaho in 1967 and 1968, worked on the Oregon primary campaign, and later was Reagan’s regional campaign director for 13 western states.

“We were clearly not the establishment then,” said VanNatta, a veteran lobbyist. “Efforts to elect him president were viewed as a joke by many in 1968. But he made his philosophy respectable, even if not universally popular.”

Reagan’s second bid for the presidency in 1976 came closer. He still lost Oregon and the nomination — narrowly — to incumbent Gerald Ford, Nixon’s successor by appointment.

Yet Reagan’s candidacy was revived when, after a series of primary losses to Ford, he finally won in North Carolina. VanNatta recalled that he and Diana Evans of Salem personally put up the few thousand dollars that kept the fledgling Oregon campaign alive until then.

“I remember how happy I was when he won a primary, because then we raised some money and got bailed out,” VanNatta said.

But even after Reagan’s second loss, his Oregon core supporters, who billed themselves as the “Rabble-Rousing Reagan Rebels,” stuck together for what became two successful bids.

“Maybe we thought it was over, but it really wasn’t,” said Evans, a 1976 convention delegate who also was a delegate and his state chairwoman in 1980 and 1984.

Reagan won Oregon’s presidential vote by decisive margins, though slightly less than his national average, against Democrats Jimmy Carter in 1980 and Walter Mondale in 1984.

JoAnne Beilke of Salem was running against Democrat Mike Kopetski for an Oregon House seat in 1984 when she attended a White House luncheon with other candidates. She said her own philosophy was more moderate, but she said Reagan’s personality won her over.

“What I was most impressed with was President Reagan’s wonderful sense of humor and ease,” she recalled. “I came away with a better understanding of the president and his wonderful way with people.”

Russ Walker, now of Keizer, was a Southern Oregon high school student who was among the thousands who cheered Reagan at a 1984 rally at the Medford airport. He and three friends made a sign: “We love you, Ronnie.”

Reagan’s last words at the rally were an appeal from the oldest president in U.S. history to the nation’s youngest people that America would be as good to their hopes as it was for his.

“It’s almost like losing a grandparent,” said Walker, now executive director of Oregon Citizens for a Sound Economy. “Few people can connect with such a wide spectrum of people and bring such optimism to the public arena.”

Walker’s first political experience was putting up signs for Reagan and U.S. Rep. Bob Smith, a Republican seeking his second term.

Reagan attracted more conservative Democrats, especially in rural areas, who subsequently left their party and became Republicans. But he also alienated moderate-to-liberal Republicans who also left their party, though most have not become Democrats.

Registered Democrats in Oregon have dropped since 1980 from 50 percent to 39 percent, but registered Republicans — despite gains in the Reagan years — remain at about 36 percent. Voters not affiliated with any party have jumped from 14 percent to 21 percent.

“The consequence of Reagan’s ideological success within his own party has been to drive away voters in the center of the electorate,” said Bill Lunch, professor of political science at Oregon State University.

“That is a key reason for Republicans not only failing to carry Oregon in presidential elections since 1984, but also with the exception of Gordon Smith, failing to win most statewide elections in recent years.”

In 1980, Republicans held all but one of the six statewide offices, and both U.S. Senate seats.

In the past dozen years, Smith has been the only Republican to win twice statewide, for the U.S. Senate.

Jack Roberts won as a Republican in 1994 for state labor commissioner, which became a nonpartisan office in 1995, and was re-elected in 1998. Former Republican legislator Stan Bunn was elected in 1998 as the nonpartisan state superintendent of public instruction.

Today, aside from Smith, no Republican holds statewide office.

Reagan’s 1980 election also coincided with the Republican takeover of the U.S. Senate. Oregon’s Mark Hatfield became chairman of the Appropriations Committee, and Bob Packwood chairman of the Commerce Committee. Four years later, Packwood took over the tax-writing Finance Committee.

“But the senior Republicans from this region had to spend a lot of time defending against the ideological zealots from their own party,” Lunch said.

Hatfield disagreed with Reagan’s increases in military spending and big budget deficits. Packwood differed with Reagan on social issues such as abortion rights.

With help from Oregon Democrats whose party still controlled the House, they turned back policies they deemed damaging to the Northwest, such as requiring the Bonneville Power Administration to pay more into the U.S. Treasury for selling hydroelectric power from federal dams.

Peter Wong can be reached at (503) 399-6745.

Readers’ letters

Local residents expressed a wide range of views about President Ronald Reagan, who died Saturday.

The following are excerpts of some of those opinions.

“I believe Ronald Reagan was the greatest president of my time and I am 67 years of age. He did more to help the middle class of America and restore confidence in our government when it was needed most. He always stood by his principles no matter what his advisers said or the polls showed.”

— Leland Laack, Salem

“I am writing this as a former California college student who was proud to never have cast a vote for Ronald Reagan for state or federal office. But I respect him.

“Listen to all the praise from those who never agreed with Reagan. Could the true ‘Reagan Revolution’ have been refusing to accept the defeatist ‘Sorry, that’s just the way things are; nothing we can do about it’ attitude? Could that be something for current legislators (especially House members) and journalists to ponder as his enduring legacy?”

— Liz Toy, Salem

“Ronald Reagan was the first presidential candidate I was ever able to vote for, having turned 21 in 1979. His vitality, sincerity and patriotism during the campaign seemed like such a welcome change from the lowliness I felt during the late 1970s about our country and our station in the world. I remember choking up during his acceptance speech when he described a return to traditional values and the promise of a new day for America.”

— Peter Alotta, Salem

“I wept when I heard the news of the president’s death! I did not weep because his death was unexpected. No, I cried because of the goodness he stood for and the pride he restored. I will never forget Ronald Reagan, and I doubt history will as well.

“I suspect some 100 years from now when scholars look back on our nation they will remember Ronald Reagan with names such as Roosevelt, Lincoln, Washington and Kennedy — a man who was larger than life and who will be remember long after his has ended. Saturday afternoon the fog he had been enshrouded in for 10 years finally lifted and Ronald Reagan heard the words, ‘Well done my good and faithful servant.’ ”

— Andrew Greenhalgh-

Johnson, Silverton

“President Ronald Reagan, while much admired for his communications skills, falls short of being a latter day Lincoln, FDR, Eisenhower or JFK. The global happening most mentioned during his tenure, the demise of Soviet communism, may have been assisted by President Reagan’s policies but cannot be attributed to them.

“Some of what we do know about President Reagan’s policies is: they prompted the largest increase in the U.S. federal debt the country ever experienced during peacetime; they allowed U.S. funds to be siphoned off (unlawfully) for support of despotic Latin American regimes under the guise of fighting communism (e.g. in Costa Rica and

Nicarauga); military interventions (Lebanon, Grenada) cost the most U.S. soldier’s lives since Vietnam (until Iraq)

and even more than Gulf War I, with little or nothing to show for them …

“All in all, I believe history, decades from now, will evaluate the Reagan Presidency as a 5 on 10 scale, mediocre.”

— Kendrick Simila, Salem

“Reagan was the most effective leader since FDR. That’s what impressed me most. Without a party majority and spite of the usual political posturing, Reagan persuaded a reluctant Congress to give major tax cuts, reduce the size of the government dole and increase the size of the military. The latter allowed him to negotiate from strength with the USSR to bring about the end of the Cold War.

“Yes, he was charming. Yes, his years as an actor made for good delivery. Yes, he was sincere. Yes, he had a plan. And he skillfully used these traits to persuade others.”

— Phil Koetsch, Salem

“Although I never rejoice in the death of anyone, I cannot say I liked Reagan’s politics. In my opinion, we can thank him for breaking the unions and putting mentally ill people on the streets of Salem and across this nation. And yes, we have less government, but, where did the money go? Into the pockets of his friends (because ‘they know how to spend the money to create minimum wage jobs’).”

— Patty du Toit, Salem

“He may have been the Great Communicator, but he also was responsible for the largest tax hike in history — the removal of interest deductions for those who itemized. I have never forgiven him for that. I have to report any interest paid to me, I should get to deduct any I pay!”

— Kathy Flynn, Turner

“Much was revealed in the lapdog media’s tribute to the great prevaricator when a reporter recalled Reagan’s reaction when the Koreans shot down a private airliner: ‘Damn those Russians! Killing all those innocent people!’ Other than both countries being nominally communist there was no Soviet — or Russian — connection. The problem with the entire Reagan era was that there was little to no truth behind any of its guiding principles.

“In an era when politicians and their lapdog media create ridiculous complications to deliberately confuse citizenry and divert them from immoral policies, a politician who simplifies can seem a welcome relief. And nothing makes life simpler than stereotypes. Reagan reinforced negative stereotypes and found imaginary scapegoats for us to focus our attention.”

— J.T. Barrie, Philomath

“I am a retired Navy veteran. Before Ronald Reagan was elected president, the Carter administration had all but gutted the military service. We were so undermanned that often times, ships were sent on deployment without the full compliment of sailors aboard. Pay was low, interest rates were high and morale was lower than I had ever witnessed before or after Reagan.

“President Reagan restored pride and morale not only in the Navy but in all the armed forces. He did much more important things than just get us a pay raise. He instilled pride, enthusiasm and a mission. We left an era we called the ‘hollow Navy’ and, under President Reagan, rebuilt the world’s largest and most efficient Navy.”

— Dennis Carmody, Sheridan

“Mourning the loss of the 40th president of the U.S.A., at age 93, who had two families and famous public career in films and American government, doesn’t bring up the emotional anguish and sadness that I feel for the young men and women, 18-25, from Oregon and elsewhere that have been killed or injured by a war in a foreign country this past year. They sacrificed their young lives and were robbed of a future. They could have been one of my own four children or eight grandchildren that I hope never see foreign conflict and violence that erupts into a war.

“My thoughts and sympathies are saved for these young men and women that have served our country in a foreign land, and their grieving families left at home. This would take priority and overshadow the death of Ronald Reagan, who led a popular and honorable life. At least he had an opportunity to survive a war and had a chance to live a full 93 years of life of his own choosing.”

— Rosalie L. (Carey)

De Martino, Salem