SALEM — The state Senate race for a district that represents Southern and Central Oregon voters has attracted interesting bedfellows heading into Tuesday’s election.
U.S. Rep. Greg Walden joined the list of Oregonians hoping to topple a conservative Republican who filed last minute to replace Sen. Doug Whitsett, R-Klamath Falls.
Walden, chairman of the campaign arm for U.S. House Republicans, is interested enough in the race that he’s endorsed a Republican write-in candidate, C.W. Smith, spoken out publicly and appeared in campaign mailers that are landing in voters’ mailboxes this week.
“I think (Smith would) do a marvelous job,” Walden told The Bulletin after a recent appearance in Central Oregon. “Voters pretty clearly do not like what is perceived to be an insider field.”
With just three minutes left before the deadline for candidates to file to run in the 2016 election, Dennis Linthicum, a former Klamath County commissioner, filed to run for Senate District 28, which includes all of Crook and Klamath counties and parts of Jackson, Lake and Deschutes counties.
For hours, it appeared Linthicum would challenge Whitsett, the conservative three-term senator who filed for re-election last October. That would have put two Klamath Falls Republicans — who share similar political views and whose writings are hosted on the conservative website KlamathNews.net — against each other in a primary election.
But the following day, March 9, Whitsett dropped out, leaving only Linthicum eligible to appear on the Republican primary ballot in a district where Democrats are outnumbered 2-to-1 by Republicans. No Democrat filed to run for the office.
Critics cried foul, alleging Whitsett and Linthicum worked together to line up the last-minute filing and stave off a bitter primary for the open Senate seat. A coalition that included the Klamath Falls mayor and local business people sought a Republican whom voters could write in on the primary ballot and came up with Smith, a former Jackson County commissioner and sheriff.
Klamath Falls resident Todd Kepple also is seeking the write-in nomination — for the Independent Party of Oregon — which would let him appear on the general election ballot in November.
Whitsett told The Bulletin last month he had spoken with Linthicum about replacing him, but said he didn’t know whether anyone would actually file. Whitsett has since declined to comment.
Linthicum in an interview Friday denied working with Whitsett to prevent competition and said anyone who wanted to challenge Whitsett could have done so.
“I wanted to run for the office. I’m weighing my probability of success and wondering, ‘Can I win against Doug if he stays in or not?’” Linthicum said. “The voters didn’t get gypped out of anything. Their opportunity to vote is in the primary.”
“You’re seeking a dead story,” he added. “People are over that.”
Two Republicans who aren’t over the filing are Walden and House Republican Leader Mike McLane, of Powell Butte, who are flexing their political muscle to try to influence the primary.
The two recently endorsed Smith in a campaign mailer paid for by a group that recently spent nearly $40,000, including on mailers showing voters in Senate District 28 what a write-in ballot with Smith’s name on it would look like.
That mailer was bought and paid for by the political arm of a group representing Oregon real estate agents and Associated Oregon Industries, a business group that didn’t return a request for comment Friday.
“Our local association down there in Klamath Falls primarily was very interested in ensuring that the voters of Senate District 28 actually had a choice of who they were going to vote for,” said Shaun Jillions, a lobbyist for the Oregon Association of Realtors.
Jillions’ group and the Associated Oregon Industries are some of the only donors to Jobs PAC, a campaign account that recently paid nearly $40,000 for mailers.
Walden’s interest in the race could stem from Linthicum’s long-standing criticism that Oregon’s lone Republican in Congress isn’t conservative enough. Linthicum challenged Walden in the 2014 primary election.
“I beat him in every precinct in his own county,” Walden told The Bulletin. (Linthicum actually won one of 43 Klamath County precincts, by two votes, according to data provided by the Oregon Secretary of State.)
McLane represents portions of Senate District 28 and said he would have considered running for the Senate seat if he’d known Whitsett was planning to retire. On Thursday, McLane gave $1,000 to Smith’s campaign.
The mailer also urges voters to write in Al Switzer for the Klamath Falls-based House District 56, which was vacated by Rep. Gail Whitsett, Doug Whitsett’s wife, also on March 9. Werner Reschke filed to run for Gail Whitsett’s seat at the same time Linthicum filed for Doug Whitsett’s seat.
Linthicum questioned Walden’s willingness to get involved in the race.
“I think my positions are well known, but still he and I have never had a discussion,” Linthicum said. “He doesn’t know how adamant or friendly I am toward moderating or arguing my ideas. I think what he’s doing is extremely questionable.”
Smith told The Bulletin he was running to give voters another choice in the race.
“We’ll find more agreement. That’s what I’ve done. That’s just what I’ve done in the relationship to my career,” he said. “I think you’ll find Jackson County is one of the most stable economic counties in the state. We made a lot of real tough decisions.”
Ballots are due to county elections offices by 8 p.m. Tuesday.
— Reporter: 406-589-4347,
The Bulletin’s Kathleen McLaughlin contributed reporting from Bend.