Business Interests Hope for Moderation in Elections with Measure 90

The ballot measure would break up the partisan primaries and allow independents to vote in all elections. But a similar ballot measure was defeated in 2008 ,and union groups and the major parties are fighting back to keep the closed system.

In 2012, Rep. Jim Thompson, R-Dallas, won the general election for his seat in the western half of the Willamette Valley by 7,912 votes. He garnered strong support of independents as well as Republicans and a fair share of Democrats.

But this spring, in a primary limited to only the most energized Republican voters, a pool of just 6,733 total voters denied Thompson the Republican nomination, effectively putting the moderate vice-chair of the House Health Committee out of office.

Now Mike Nearman, who defeated Thompson with 12 percent of the total vote of the 2012 election, will likely be Dallas’ next representative, although Democrat Wanda Davis has an outside chance, and Thompson is trying a write-in campaign. Nearman’s victory in the low turnout Republican primary gave him a comfortable path to victory without needing the majority of voters in his district.

But if Measure 90 were in effect, independents and Democrats could have weighed in on the critical primary election, and Nearman’s hard-right stance, in which he bore into Thompson over his support of gay rights, would have had a harder sell with the more moderate general electorate.

“In my primary, I would’ve won hands-down,” Thompson told The Lund Report. “If you’re running a far-right campaign, you can probably sell a low turnout Republican primary. You can’t do that when independents and Democrats are voting.”

Measure 90 would dramatically alter Oregon’s election process by trading the partisan primary elections for a blanket nonpartisan primary, or jungle primary, in which all voters get the chance to pick from all candidates, and the top-two vote-getters regardless of party move onto the general election.

Two former Secretaries of State from each party tried once before to get Oregon to adopt this primary system in 2008, only to be outspent and lose every county on their way to a 2-to-1 defeat. Proponents will not be outspent this time.

Despite its lower profile than other hot button issues on the ballot like marijuana legalization and the labeling of foods made with genetically modified organisms, Measure 90 saw a recent surge of moneyed interest from out of state. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg gave $1.25 million, and former Enron executive turned hedge fund manager John Arnold spent $1 million, both in support.

“These two billionaires put together 65 percent of their contributions,” said Sara Logue, spokeswoman for the Protect Our Vote Coalition, which opposes the ballot measure.

“The reality is campaigns are expensive things to operate,” said Maurice Henderson, campaign manager of Yes on 90. “They’ve decided it’s an issue nationally that needs to be taken state by state.”

Similar election systems have been put in place in Louisiana as well as Oregon’s liberal neighbors, California and Washington. In 2010, a general election race in Yakima would have been won by a Republican regardless of the primary style. But since the nonpartisan primary spat out two Republicans, independents and minority Democrats in the district were able to help elect the more moderate Republican, Rep. Norm Johnson, who supported gay civil unions.

“It’s going to cause a shift toward the center,” Thompson said. “It’s going to take a whack to the far left and far right.”

Idea Backed by Oregon Business Community

The recent $1 million checks aside, most of the early money flowing in to support Measure 90 came from Oregon business interests, which have traditionally supported the Republican Party. But the Oregon Republican business establishment has long been in the political wilderness. The Democrats have controlled all statewide offices since 2008, and no Republican has been able to win the governor’s office since Vic Atiyeh in 1982, before almost half of Oregonians were born.

Cambia Health Solutions, the parent company of Regence BlueCross BlueShield, gave $25,000 to help get Measure 90 get on the ballot, and the Oregon Association of Hospitals & Health Systems gave $60,000 for the yes campaign. Other Oregon interests with significant donations were $50,000 checks from Nike, Associated Oregon Industries and the Automobile Dealers Association of Portland.

“We believe our state government would operate more effectively with less partisanship and more compromise,” hospital association spokesman Philip Schmidt said in an email. “Open primaries are one very important tool to bringing more balance to our elected bodies by giving more than 600,000 unaffiliated Oregon voters a voice in this process.”

Over the years, Republican partisan primaries have allowed social conservatives to gain precedence over business interests. Thompson was just the latest casualty, despite heavy spending by the business community as well as labor groups on his behalf. The situation has assembled a Republican caucus that has trouble appealing to voters statewide.

“It’s embarrassing,” Thompson said. “We’re just a caricature of ourselves. We were proud to be the party of business. Most business people don’t want to be associated with us anymore.”

The Oregon Republican Party is led by Art Robinson, a perennial congressional candidate who has lost by wide margins twice to Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Springfield, and accused Oregon’s senior congressman of conspiring with Oregon State University officials to flunk Robinson’s children. Robinson, who’s opposing DeFazio a third time, has also supported disposing of nuclear waste in the Pacific Ocean, and asked all Oregonians to mail him urine samples for scientific purposes.

In this year’s gubernatorial election, the business establishment has joined hands with labor unions to support Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber rather than take a chance on the Republican candidate, Rep. Dennis Richardson, R-Central Point, who trails in the polls and has been forced to rely primarily on the anti-abortion group Oregon Right to Life and the most conservative of the timber interests for campaign money.

Both Major Party Establishments Oppose but Mavericks Defect

Robinson’s official Republican Party has joined up with the Democrats to defeat Measure 90, and most of the money to oppose the measure comes from labor unions, traditional allies to the Democrats, including the Oregon Nurses Association and Service Employees International Union.

The labor unions may be worried they’ll lose clout in their ability to influence and get favorable candidates elected, and one unfortunate downside of competitive elections is that it could force candidates to raise more money from sources opposed both to union interests and public interests.

But some unions, including Teamsters Local 206 broke ranks and supported Measure 90. Mavericks in both parties have bucked their party leadership to support Measure 90, including the liberal Sen. Chris Edwards, D-Eugene, the more conservative Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose and the unpredictable Sen. Brian Boquist, R-McMinnville.  

Henderson noted that Gov. John Kitzhaber has also expressed support for the concept, along with Richardson -- although Kitzhaber campaign spokeswoman Amy Wojcicki ignored a request from The Lund Report to comment.

At least immediately, an open nonpartisan primary would seem to have less effect on the Democrats than the Republicans, where a fringe has been able to nominate candidates far to the right of the average voter.

There really aren’t any “far left” Democratic equivalents of politicians commandeering the electorate through low turnout primaries like Nearman or Bill Post, a right-wing talk radio host favored for an open seat in Keizer. The most liberal politicians, like Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, or Rep. Paul Holvey, D-Eugene, represent constituents who are overwhelmingly liberal.

And most elected Democrats, as may be fitting a governing majority, have already staked out positions well to the right of the typical Democratic voter. The party caucus includes moderates like Sen. Laurie Monnes Anderson, D-Gresham, and Johnson, who prevent the state from implementing truly liberal public policies the way California or Maryland have in recent years.

Phony Website and Voter’s Pamphlet Opinions

Both sides of the issue have run campaigns full of shenanigans, with the supporters of Measure 90 filing phony, sarcastic comments in the voter’s pamphlet and making a mock website.

“I was disappointed when I learned about these naughty tactics,” Logue said.

Henderson said the phony ads and arguments were an attempt to use satire to inform voters after the over-the-top red herrings put out by the No on 90 campaign.

“In response, we thought we could have some fun with these arguments. We followed the rules. The voters have the chance to see what the other side says,” said Henderson. His opponents essentially are upset with him in the same way that conservatives might be outraged that Stephen Colbert is not a true believer of his right-wing rhetoric.

House Majority Leader Val Hoyle, D-Eugene, and Rep. Vic Gilliam, R-Silverton, were not amused by Yes on Measure 90’s tactics and plan to introduce legislation to prevent ballot measure campaigns from submitting the confusing satirical opinions in their opponents’ section of the voter guide. An email to Hoyle was not returned asking how such a bill would stop independent individuals from drafting sarcastic opinions of their own.

Henderson pointed out that last time around, the state teacher’s union, the Oregon Education Association, sent out mailers falsely tying Measure 65 to convicted racketeer Bill Sizemore, and helping send it to a lopsided defeat. In fact, that failed measure was led by two former Secretaries of State -- Republican Norma Paulus and Democrat Phil Keisling. Sizemore has had no involvement in either go-round.

The No on 90 campaign, which has organized under the curiously named Protect Our Vote Coalition, has argued that it’s the defender of third parties as well as independents, in order to allow them to have a broad menu of choices in the general election, even as the opponents work to block independents from primary races where many races are decided, and third parties never play more than a spoiler role in general elections.

Measure 90 wouldn’t stop minor parties from fielding candidates in the primary election in the districts they might be viable, and as the director of the Working Families Party, Steve Hughes, argued in the voter pamphlet, by enhancing Oregon’s system of fusion voting, candidates who make the general election ballot can vie for the endorsement of minor parties and help advance their policies through this stamp of approval.

Impacts on Minorities

Protect Our Vote injected race into the debate, claiming that minority residents would be hurt by Measure 90, basing this argument primarily on the notion that minorities are less likely to vote in primaries than older white voters.

But under the current system, minority voters who do not participate in the partisan primaries are only able to participate in a dozen competitive legislative races -- the same as white voters. In those districts closely divided between parties, these seats will remain competitive. Under the proposed system, all voters will be able to vote in both the competitive primaries and the competitive general election races.

Henderson said that in California there has been a 10 percent increase in the number of nonwhite elected officials since the jungle primary was put in place. Compare that to Oregon, where the non-Hispanic white population is 76 percent of the populous, but represents 94 percent of the Legislature, with only five legislators who are Hispanic or black.

Frank Dixon, the Democratic Party chairman, pointed out another significant flaw in the way Measure 90 was written in the voter pamphlet. Although the referendum calls for special elections for Congress during vacancies, it would make a bad system for replacing legislators who leave before the end of their term even worse.

Currently, if a state lawmaker leaves office, his or her political party gets to pick the replacement, with the blessing of county commissioners. Several Oregon lawmakers owe their break into elected office not to voters but their party as a result. Measure 90 does not call for the voters to fill these vacancies but would allow the county commissioners to appoint anyone, even if they represent the opposite party of the outgoing official.

“The appointment of someone regardless of political party is very disrespectful of the will of the voters,” Logue said.

More competitive districts do have a significant downside -- while most incumbent legislators barely have to campaign to keep their seats now; competition would require them to raise campaign cash, which usually comes with strings attached. A politician in a safe seat may therefore be less beholden to special interests than one who has to go begging for money to get into office.

Logue noted that a California congressional primary in the Bay Area ran up $4 million in campaign spending just in the primary as tech industry darling Ro Khanna tried to unseat his fellow Democrat, veteran Congressman Mike Honda.

And citing statistics of her own, Logue noted that Washington hasn’t actually seen more competition than Oregon. In the past two election cycles, 22 percent of Washington legislative races were won by fewer than 10 points, while 21 percent of Oregon races were as competitive.

A recent Oregon Public Broadcasting poll put proponents of Measure 90 at 36 percent of the electorate and opponents at 38 percent, while 26 percent were undecided; a lot larger number than other ballot measures, such as the immigrant driver card bill or the legalization of marijuana.

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