Oregon’s third parties fielded candidates in partisan races across the board in this year’s elections. None of them won a major race, continuing a near dry spell that stretches back decades. But the parties are still claiming victories.
The Pacific Green Party, whose candidate Jason Levin received about 2 percent of the vote in the race for governor, takes some credit for the legalization of marijuana. A Libertarian candidate for state Senate in Hillsboro got enough votes to tip the seat from Republican to Democratic control, giving Senate Democrats a supermajority in the process.
Minor party candidates trumpet issues Democrats and Republicans sometimes have no choice but to embrace. Registration figures show their influence on politics is growing, increasing the chance that outside party candidates will change future Oregon elections without actually winning them.
“I think that’s a traditional role of third parties almost everywhere in this country in the winner-take-all election system,” said Blair Bobier, spokesman for the Pacific Green Party of Oregon. “We don’t see ourselves being in this role permanently, but we’re happy pushing our issues and having those issues resonate with the public.”
The scorecard for third parties winning elections is poor in Oregon. Voters have never elected a third-party candidate to Congress, attorney general, treasurer or secretary of state.
The last governor to be elected as a third-party candidate in Oregon was Julius Meier, who was elected as an independent in 1930.
But minor party leaders point to recent elections as proof that the tide is turning in their favor.
The outside parties make up just under 8 percent of the state’s entire electorate. That’s up from about 1 percent of all voters in 1992. There is also a rapidly growing number of unaffiliated voters that belong to no party.
Many candidates don’t raise money in principle and instead call for eliminating the need for big bank accounts padded by private donors to win elections.
Caitlin Mitchel-Markley, a Libertarian who ran for Senate District 15, spent less than $10,000 on the race but got about 9 percent of the vote. The Democrat running in the district west of Portland, Chuck Riley, was leading by less than 100 votes over incumbent Republican Bruce Starr.
Riley and Starr raised nearly $2 million combined. Mitchel-Markley, a contract attorney, ran on a platform of cleaning up the books of unneeded laws and changing spending priorities so the state spends money on public safety and the court system.
“The issues we were interested in weren’t left, right, politically strategic,” she said. “It was here’s issue that affects everyone, and they need to be addressed.”
The third parties pick from and advance new ideas by running in elections and at least threatening to grab votes from the corners of other parties.
Chris Henry, a union truck driver outside Portland, ran for governor as a Progressive, a party with about 2,200 registered members, 1,400 of whom voted in the election.
Henry was invited to just one televised debate, hosted by the League of Oregon Cities, and picked up about 1 percent of the vote, or around 13,000 votes.
He said he’ll advocate for electoral reform such as trying to get corporate money out of politics. He’ll also tout the idea of instant-runoff voting, where voters rank candidates on the ballot in preferential order.
This year is on record as the most expensive midterm in history, and the ballot measure that would have required GMO labeling became the most expensive measure in state history. Multiple state Senate races easily passed the million-dollar mark.
“Once they get into office you have to also question funding, where they’re getting their money and question the way they’ve been voting,” Henry said.
Wes Wagner, chairman of Oregon’s Libertarian Party, sees this year’s election results as a sign that voters are starting to adopt the party’s ideology.
None of the 29 Libertarian candidates won. None received more than 19 percent of the vote in any legislative, gubernatorial or congressional race. Still, Wagner says, both main parties should take note of the party’s influence on state and national politics.
Political analysts say Libertarians have the potential to draw from both Republican and Democratic candidates, but they generally take more votes from Republicans in elections. That means Mitchel-Markley’s slice of the vote could cost Starr the election, giving Democrats their 18th of 30 seats in the Senate.
Wagner calls that a win for the Libertarian Party of Oregon.
“The major parties can either adapt or they’re going to die,” Wagner said.
— Reporter: 406-589-4347,
Editor’s note: This story has been corrected. In the original version, the most recent third-party candidate elected governor was incorrect.
The Bulletin regrets the error.