SALEM — When state Sen. Doug Whitsett announced he would leave Oregon politics, and likely be replaced by a Klamath County cohort, he struck a nerve with some residents who are mobilizing a long-shot campaign to block Whitsett’s successor.
Whitsett is a Republican whose Senate district includes Crook and Klamath counties and parts of Deschutes, Lake and Jackson counties. He and his wife, Rep. Gail Whitsett, made a surprise move this month by waiting until the day after the deadline to file to run for office to take their names out of the running for re-election.
The move stunned even the Whitsetts’ close friends, and it appeared Doug Whitsett had picked his replacement, former Klamath County Commissioner Dennis Linthicum, a Republican who filed to run for Whitsett’s Senate seat minutes before the deadline. Whitsett told The Bulletin previously that he spoke with Linthicum and the Republican running for Gail Whitsett’s House seat, E. Werner Reschke, about replacing the Whitsetts but that he wasn’t sure they would file.
Some in Southern and Central Oregon are now undertaking an effort to prevent Linthicum’s election, with Klamath Falls Mayor Todd Kellstrom and others spearheading the search for local Republicans willing to mount write-in campaigns.
C.W. Smith, 69, a former Jackson County commissioner, announced last week he’ll challenge Linthicum for the Senate seat in the heavily Republican district. He’ll start a write-in campaign as a moderate alternative to Linthicum, a former Klamath County commissioner.
“I’ve got liberal friends who think I’m real conservative and conservative friends who think I’m very moderate,” Smith told The Bulletin on Monday. “I’ve always tried to be reasonable and use logic when I make decisions. I try to eliminate emotion and try to get to the facts.”
Smith was also sheriff of Jackson County, police chief of the city of Talent and interim city manager in Lakeview. He said in those roles he took a moderate approach that he’d bring to Salem if elected.
“(Doug) Whitsett was pretty intransigent,” Smith said. “What happens when you are that way, a lot of times you don’t get the kinds of compromise you want.”
Todd Kepple, a former news reporter and current manager of the Klamath County Museum, is also considering running for the seat. A long-time independent, Kepple registered as a Republican last week and planned to challenge Linthicum with a write-in campaign as well.
Kepple says he’ll no longer look for the Republican nomination after Smith stepped up with support from other prominent local Republicans. He said that in the coming days he’ll consider mounting a write-in campaign to become the candidate for the Independent Party.
“The whole thing comes about because Mr. Linthicum’s views are so far to the right that all the rest of us have gotten interested in this race,” Kepple said. “If we had a typical mainstream Republican running for office, none of this would have happened.”
House Republican Leader Mike McLane, R-Powell Butte, told The Bulletin earlier this month he would have considered a run for Whitsett’s Senate seat had he known he was stepping aside. McLane will back Smith in the write-in campaign, his office confirmed Monday.
On top of the push for the Republican nomination, voters in the district may see a battle to become the general election candidate for the Independent Party of Oregon, which will hold its first-ever state-run primary as a major party this May.
The party has opened its primary to all registered members and anyone who is registered to vote but doesn’t belong to a party. Unaffiliated voters must ask the county clerk for an Independent Party primary ballot if they’d like to vote in that primary.
Linthicum and Smith are also free to pursue the nomination of the Independent Party. Whichever candidate receives the most write-in votes in the Independent Party primary will have his or her name on the general election ballot.
Kellstrom, the Klamath Falls mayor who called himself a lifelong Republican, said he’ll continue supporting the outside effort to send someone to Salem to compromise with Democrats who control the Legislature and the governor’s mansion.
“I feel we would be better served by a senator and representative if we had someone in there (who was) more moderate, someone who was more willing to be a diplomat rather than just carry a baseball bat,” he said.
Linthicum and Reschke didn’t respond to requests for comment.
On top of being the only candidate listed on the primary ballot in May for state Senate District 28, Linthicum will have name recognition from his 2014 primary challenge of U.S. Rep Greg Walden — Oregon’s only Republican in Congress.
Linthicum also writes on a personal blog about constitutional conservatism. Recent posts have shown support for the backlash against the resentencing of two Harney County ranchers, which eventually spread into the occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. He has likened the spread of federal power to metastatic cancer and supports a movement in Southern Oregon and Northern California to secede and create the State of Jefferson.
“Today’s progressive movement has thrown aside our American tradition in favor of a Utopian dream fulfilled by big government authoritarians,” Linthicum wrote in a recent post. “To the dismay of liberty loving patriots all over Oregon, the progressive movement is wielding it’s (sic) majority with thoughtless abandon.”
— Reporter: 406-589-4347,