With the apparent victory of Democrat Chuck Riley in Senate District 15 over a Republican incumbent, a win that would give his party a supermajority in the Oregon Senate, analysts are debating whether a Libertarian challenger tipped the scales in Riley’s favor.
It’s conventional political wisdom that Libertarians siphon more votes from Republicans, a theory that’s widely accepted but difficult to prove. Both parties call for fiscal responsibility and smaller government. Differences emerge on social issues, on which Libertarians in general are liberal.
Oregon Libertarians deny their candidate took votes from Republican Sen. Bruce Starr of Hillsboro in the race, opening the door for renewed debate over the effect Oregon’s fourth-biggest party has in the state’s elections.
“Bruce Starr did not run on pot,” said Jim Moore, referencing a libertarian staple of drug legalization. “Bruce Starr ran on smaller government. His message was a libertarian message.”
Caitlin Mitchel-Markley, a contract attorney and Libertarian candidate who spent less than $6,000 campaigning in a race that cost nearly $2 million, got 9 percent of the vote. The outcome of the election will be decided by about half a percentage point.
Mitchel-Markley campaigned on such measures as cleaning Oregon’s books of what she regards as unneeded or unconstitutional laws. She was critical of the nearly $200 million spent on plans for the Columbia River Crossing and of the state’s failed health care exchange. Those are issues that she says are bipartisan.
There are no exit polls that might help explain the vote in the Washington County district.
Mitchel-Markley denies she won over Republican voters and says instead she won over potential Democratic voters and prevented a huge Riley win.
“I think (Washington) County has now skewed more Democratic versus Libertarians taking from Republicans,” she said.
Mitchel-Markley and her husband, Kyle Markley, who ran for House District 30, shared an advertisement on bus benches. The two sent out a joint mailer that read “A man’s place is in the house — a woman’s is in the senate.”
Kyle Markley, who has run for the seat in the past, also picked up about 9 percent in his race.
In a county with House and Senate districts that have swapped control in recent years, the Riley-Starr race was picked as one of the tightest Senate races from the start of election season.
Senate Democrats and Republicans picked the race as one of three tossups that could change control of the Senate. Democrats won two of those Senate races handily and gained seats in both chambers.
Tom Powers, executive director of the Senate Democratic campaign arm, is backing Mitchel-Markley’s theory that her campaign appealed to both parties and that she pulled more votes away from Riley.
Powers said early polling that included Mitchel-Markley showed she would likely take Republican votes. Polls near the election showed she would take votes from both “almost equally,” he said.
“She was a true third-party candidate who ran a race and had a platform,” Powers said. “Not what we would consider a spoiler.”
Michael Gay, spokesman for the caucus arm of Senate Republicans, said it was too difficult to say where Mitchel-Markley’s votes came from. But he said her messages of cutting regulation and fiscal responsibility were similar to Starr’s.
“I think Starr was pretty supportive of a lot of (her) concepts,” Gay said.
There are only 600 registered Libertarians in Senate District 15. Mitchel-Markley received more than 3,500 votes. There is also a large number of unaffiliated voters to pull from.
Wes Wagner, chairman of Oregon’s Libertarian Party, said Mitchel-Markley’s apparent impact on the race should serve as a warning to the main parties that voters are changing.
“Libertarianism is on the rise,” Wagner said. “Demographically speaking the younger generations are cynical of government. They’re not racist. They’re not homophobes. They’ve seen our international wars and they reject it.”
Starr’s apparent loss is a sting for Republicans who were defeated in Oregon while other states saw their Legislatures turn more Republican.
Mitchel-Markley said she was clearly underestimated by her competitors. She said she may run again in the future and that “it’s very likely” that her husband would run again. Meanwhile, Wagner promises a strong presence in the 2016 election that will likely force both parties in tight races to adapt their campaigns.
Moore said the Libertarians will continue to possess the ability to shape future elections. But the state party in recent years has been plagued by infighting, and Moore said it’s not on the doorstep of becoming a major force in American politics.
“If you don’t have a strong coherent voice, a spokesperson, it’s really hard to overcome the factions and it’s really hard to move the party just beyond a fringe group,” Moore said.
— Reporter: 406-589-4347,