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Chimney sweep Grant Darrow has been a key promoter of the Greater Idaho movement.Nathan VanderKlippe/The Globe and Mail

When people describe the differences between eastern and western Oregon, they often speak in colours.

The coast’s rainy verdure contrasts sharply with the dun of an arid interior and its expanses of sun-bleached wheat. Then there are the political shades: the blue on the west that has kept Democrats in the governor’s office for nearly 40 years, while to the east of the Cascade Mountains, Republican red runs so deep that in some counties four in five voters supported Donald Trump in 2020.

Such cleavages of geography and politics are common across the U.S., breeding a resentment and disenchantment that has fuelled frustrated undercurrents from the Tea Party to Trumpism.

In eastern Oregon, one group says it has a solution: join Idaho, one of the most reliably red states in the U.S., by moving the state boundary far to the west – a kind of extreme gerrymandering that would redraw the national map to separate citizens by their political beliefs. The Greater Idaho movement, as it is called, proposes taking nearly two-thirds of Oregon’s land and bringing it under Boise’s rule.

Breakaway Oregon counties

In eastern Oregon, 11 counties have already voted to advocate for joining Idaho

CANADA

Counties that have voted

for joining Idaho

Counties that vote next

on joining Idaho

WASHINGTON

MONTANA

OREGON

IDAHO

CALIFORNIA

NEVADA

UTAH

the globe and mail, Source: greateridaho.org

Breakaway Oregon counties

In eastern Oregon, 11 counties have already voted to advocate for joining Idaho

CANADA

Counties that have voted

for joining Idaho

Counties that vote next

on joining Idaho

WASHINGTON

MONTANA

OREGON

IDAHO

CALIFORNIA

NEVADA

UTAH

the globe and mail, Source: greateridaho.org

Breakaway Oregon counties

In eastern Oregon, 11 counties have already voted to advocate for joining Idaho

CANADA

Counties that have voted

for joining Idaho

Counties that vote next

on joining Idaho

WASHINGTON

MONTANA

OREGON

IDAHO

CALIFORNIA

NEVADA

UTAH

the globe and mail, Source: greateridaho.org

The concept, seductive to conservatives, is among the most tangible expressions of the ill will that courses through modern U.S. politics, even if it is dismissed by critics as preposterous. “I’m 76 years old and if I don’t die until I’m 111, it won’t be done,” said Susan Roberts, a councillor in Wallowa County who has been in politics for 40 years. “If you want to move to Idaho or Kentucky or someplace, you can do that.”

Some in eastern Oregon counter: Why uproot yourself when you can bring Idaho to you?

The idea has gained traction. Eleven rural Oregon counties have already voted to begin discussions on how to join Idaho. Politicians in Oregon and Idaho have prepared legislation to kick-start negotiations. Polling shows high levels of public support for the idea in both states, and money is being raised to hire lobbyists.

“Time to secede or succumb,” as Grant Darrow put it in a 2015 letter to the editor that helped to spark the current movement. Mr. Darrow is a muckraking eastern Oregon chimney sweep whose job once took him into homes across an area the size of New Jersey. Conversations in those living rooms, he says, prompted him to propose a change.

Open this photo in gallery:

Matt McCaw, spokesman for the Greater Idaho movement, outside his home in Powell Butte.Nathan VanderKlippe/The Globe and Mail

“Everybody was ticked off with what was going on in Salem,” the Oregon capital, he said. “People were just fuming.” Parting ways with the coastal liberals just seemed to make sense.

“They don’t want us. We don’t want to be here,” he said. “And people in Idaho are sympathetic to our cause.”

Republicans in Idaho see the prospect of adding resources and a bloc of voters that would cement their hold on what has already been a conservative stronghold.

“We look at this huge land mass over there in Oregon. Look at their resources, from water and timber and minerals. Why wouldn’t we at least want to have a conversation?” said Barbara Ehardt, an Idaho representative who intends to draft a bill proposing discussion of the state-line move.

In eastern Oregon, 11 counties have already voted to advocate for switching to Idaho, obligating local commissioners to meet regularly to discuss the idea. Those meetings tend to be sparsely attended and a recent drive through the region – with its wind-sculpted landscapes, mountain cattle ranges and tight river canyons – showed few roadside signs of support.

But grievance is widespread. People have chafed at elements of the state’s progressive policy that include minimum-wage hikes, climate-related measures, decriminalization of drug possession and, more recently, Measure 114, which mandates new permits for buying a gun and bans possession of magazines that contain more than 10 rounds. (The measure is being challenged by a lawsuit from Harney County, one of the 11 that have voted in favour of Greater Idaho.)

“We believe almost nothing similar to the west side,” said Matt McCaw, a small-business owner who is now the spokesman for Greater Idaho. He called state boundaries an imaginary line established at a very different time in history.

Open this photo in gallery:

In 2015, Grant Darrow sent a letter to the editor suggesting parts of Oregon secede, a notion that has become the Greater Idaho movement today. Mr. Darrow keeps the letter framed in his home in Cove.Nathan VanderKlippe/The Globe and Mail

Today, “where the state line is doesn’t make sense in this state. Because it’s not where the cultural, political economic divide is.”

The pandemic, in particular, galvanized disaffection. “People in eastern Oregon did not like the lockdown,” Mr. McCaw said. “And it was forced on us by the west side of the state.”

History, supporters say, is on their side. Other boundaries have, in decades past, been moved after an agreement between two states, albeit in minor ways. The U.S. Congress must approve any such change.

Still, no one has yet to devise a proper idea of what Greater Idaho might cost. Critics have suggested Idaho would have to pay many billions of dollars in compensation. Proponents say the state’s eastern counties contain 9 per cent of the population, and therefore Idaho could be expected to shoulder 9 per cent of the state’s debt.

Nonetheless, they say it’s much more feasible than other self-rule concepts like the State of Jefferson, an idea to create an entirely new state on the West Coast.

And the 11 county votes should be taken seriously, said Dennis Linthicum, an Oregon state senator.

“King George III probably ought to have thought seriously when 13 colonies were asking for their freedom,” said Mr. Linthicum, who recently proposed a bill to begin Greater Idaho negotiations. He calls Alberta’s recently passed sovereignty act a “bit inspiring.”

Even for him, though, actually redrawing the map isn’t a top priority.

“We’re getting a little bit of conversation started, and that’s the main thing,” he said. “Is it really move the border and that’s the absolute end-all be-all? I don’t think so.”

But to others, the mere existence of Greater Idaho reflects a dim modern reality. Oregon author and commentator Robert Leo Heilman faults leaders who have pried open social fractures for their own political advantage.

“I don’t blame the angry people so much as I do the people who are deliberately angering them,” he said.

“In Dante’s Inferno, the fomenters of discord occupy the eighth ring of hell. Just barely up from the bottom,” he added. “Hell, the fornicators are on the second ring. Choose your sins wisely.”

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