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Red Regions, Blue States and the Urge to Separate

Dissident counties are joining quixotic efforts to secede from their states in much of the country. They’re a manifestation of real political resentments and a way to attract some attention.

"Move Oregon's Border" sign
A campaign sign urging voters in rural Oregon to pass a ballot initiative in support of their counties joining Idaho. Voters in 12 counties have approved the measure. (KREM)
Many years ago, on a reporting trip out west, I wandered into a bar in Ontario, Ore., in the eastern part of the state, a short distance from the Idaho border. It wasn’t at all what I expected. Instead of the eco-friendly, yuppified place I remembered from Portland, I found myself in a nest of rough-looking characters in cowboy boots and Stetson hats. There was a second Oregon I hadn’t bothered to learn about.

On the same trip, a few miles away in Boise, Idaho, I was envisioning another Wild West cowboy town, a bigger version of Ontario. I was wrong again. Boise was a gentrifying city with a hip downtown and trendy restaurants that made it look more like Portland than like the Mountain West.

I learned one thing from that trip that I should have realized before. State borders are arbitrary, often inappropriate. Large portions of some states really do belong somewhere else. The residents of eastern Oregon have known that for a long time. They relate better to the conservative counties that make up most of Idaho.

Now they are trying to do something about that. An organization called the Greater Idaho Movement has persuaded 12 eastern Oregon counties to pass a ballot initiative in support of joining Idaho. The Idaho House of Representatives has authorized talks with eastern Oregon dissidents, but no further action has been taken. One Idaho legislator refers to bringing in like-minded people who share “old-fashioned traditional values.” The Oregon counties favorable to the movement voted 75 percent Republican in the 2022 U.S. House races, even as the state as a whole voted Democratic. Idaho went 67 percent Republican.

I suppose I should tell you before we go much further that what the Greater Idaho group wants isn’t going to happen. In a minute I’ll tell you why. But first I want to make a larger point: Unrest like this exists in more parts of the country than you probably realize.

Most of it is like the Idaho-Oregon controversy — a desire on the part of conservative rural counties to escape liberal urban-dominated governments that hold power over them at the state level. Similar efforts have been launched in the hilly uplands of northern Maryland, in the conservative precincts of northern Colorado and among the right-leaning counties of rural New Mexico.

But it isn’t always a matter of rural resentment. Last November, voters in San Bernardino County, Calif., population 2.2 million and the third-largest metro area in the state, narrowly approved an advisory ballot measure to explore the idea of seceding and creating a state of their own. The San Bernardino dissidents are frustrated with homelessness, high housing costs, rising crime rates and an overall increase in the cost of living. San Bernardino is angry, but it’s not launching a rural right-wing rebellion. A majority of the registered voters in the county are Democrats, although it voted Republican for governor in 2022.

SAN BERNARDINO COUNTY WILL NEVER BECOME A STATE. That’s an easy one. Only states have the constitutional authority to give up territory, and they need a majority vote from Congress even to do that. Threatening to secede is a way to attract some attention. That’s really all it is.

What about Idaho and Oregon simply doing a swap? That’s a bit more complicated. If the two states simply wanted to exchange counties, with no new state involved, and the counties wanted to make the switch, it’s possible they could do it without a vote from Congress. Not likely, but possible. The question is what would motivate a pair of states to pull off something like that. The activist members of the Greater Idaho Movement think their state would be a big winner. The Greater Idaho website talks about “the satisfaction of freeing more than 380,000 rural Oregonians from woke progressive blue-state law.” A few months ago, one of the leaders told my colleague Alan Greenblatt that “we would gain enough citizens to give Idaho another congressional seat, plus bring more businesses and innovators into Idaho.”

What Oregon would get out of this is hard to fathom. The counties that would like to leave the state have a combined population of about 220,000, about 5 percent of Oregon’s total. If these counties left, Oregon would lose some angry red-state dissidents, but no state wants to give up population and the benefits it brings, notably political representation, a bigger tax base and a larger stake in federal grants tied to population. In exchange for giving up much of its eastern region, Oregon would have to get something in return.

I can’t imagine what this would be. A few Idaho legislators have expressed mild curiosity about picking up some of Oregon, but have never mentioned what they would cede in return. Boise is far more liberal than the rest of Idaho and might fit better along Oregon’s Pacific Coast, but it isn’t going anywhere. The deepest-red counties haven’t asked to join Oregon, and it stretches credulity to think they would. If this were baseball, perhaps they could work out a trade for a few counties to be named later, but this isn’t baseball.

SO THE WHOLE IDEA HAS ALL THE SYMPTOMS OF A FOOL’S ERRAND. But it does raise the question of how many times these quixotic efforts have popped up in modern history. The answer is, quite a few. In 1969, Norman Mailer ran for mayor of New York City on a promise to promote its secession from the rest of the state. Forty years later, a state legislator from Long Island floated a secession scheme, on the grounds that its counties weren’t getting a fair share of state financial aid.

In 2011, a group called Save Our State wanted to get Tucson to break away from the rest of Arizona, the result of a dispute over public works contracts. Two years later, five Colorado counties voted in favor of a new state of Northern Colorado, a statement of discontent with liberal-leaning Denver. Georgia conducted a referendum on making a new state out of the dozens of South Georgia counties. It didn’t do very well, but it pulled a decent vote in some areas of the rural southeast.

In Illinois, where I come from, the state has been deeply divided for more than two centuries between a northern half, settled by Yankees who moved west from New York and New England, and a southern half, most of whose residents came from Appalachia or the Deep South. This has been the cause of separation fever since the early 19th century. It still is. In 2011, two state representatives introduced a resolution to make Chicago and surrounding Cook County the 51st state. They weren’t trying to do Cook County any favors. They objected to what they perceived as Chicago “dictating its views” to their downstate counties and constituents. In 2019, three downstate legislators advanced a similar proposal, for similar reasons.

YOU GET THE IDEA. The fact that none of this can happen doesn’t prevent disaffected regions from seeking a divorce from their states. What’s intriguing is the fact that this keeps coming up.

Perhaps it goes without saying (although I will say it anyway) that separation fever in the United States is simply a variant of the polarization that afflicts every level of the political system, from city councils and school boards to Congress and the Supreme Court. The losing side in all political disputes in the last 250 years has tended to feel that it wasn’t being listened to.

Sometimes this was true; more often it wasn’t. Losing an argument doesn’t mean you have been ignored, even if you are convinced that it does. And for most of the nation’s history, the unsuccessful side — individuals, interest groups or outvoted regions of states — have licked their wounds and either given up or tried a different tactic. On balance, ideological diversity, even within individual states, has probably been a healthy component of American democracy. It can serve as a check on majority recklessness. Do we really want our states to be politically homogeneous? I don’t.

What’s different now is that regional political losers are far less willing to accept defeat. They vow not to enforce laws they don’t like, refuse to accept settled election results and, as we are increasingly seeing, agitate for separation from the insensitive power brokers they see at the state capital. The fact that secession can’t succeed doesn’t make it meaningless, or trivial. It is a manifestation of real resentments that won’t disappear until we find a way to deal with the larger dysfunctions with which American government has been afflicted.
Alan Ehrenhalt is a contributing editor for Governing. He served for 19 years as executive editor of Governing Magazine. He can be reached at
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