SALEM — The November general election was a little over six months ago. Flip the calendar and the May 2020 Oregon primary is less than a year away, by which time the state will be a late arrival to the national electoral party.
Last year, voters statewide voted for governor. Next year, they’ll pick a U.S. senator, secretary of state, treasurer and attorney general, and they’ll make their choices for president.
The opening salvos of 2020 have been fired. After a prolonged flirtation with running for the White House, Oregon’s Democratic U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley said in March he will instead seek reelection to a third term. Gov. Kate Brown’s desire to keep the secretary of state’s race wide open shaped her appointment of Bev Clarno, who says she will not run for the office next year.
The public political jockeying for 2020 will likely intensify when the Legislature adjourns next month. But a pattern is emerging that is familiar to Oregon politics in recent years.
Democrats have three incumbents likely to seek reelection: Merkley, Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum and Treasurer Tobias Read.
For the one job with no Democratic incumbent, secretary of state, several Democrats could vie for the party’s nomination.
Republicans’ reality is far different. Their only recent elected statewide officeholder, former Secretary of State Dennis Richardson, died in February.
The list of GOP names known statewide who could mount a high-profile statewide campaign is short. U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River, has passed several times on running for the U.S. Senate or governor, content to build on his 20-plus years of seniority in the House.
Former state Rep. Knute Buehler, R-Bend, has name recognition and access to major donors earned as the 2018 Republican nominee for governor. He’s lost two bids to Brown for statewide office — secretary of state in 2012 and governor last year.
No candidate wants to be known as a three-time loser. Buehler is unlikely to answer GOP calls for a quixotic bid to topple an incumbent next year. Patience would leave him a decision to make — in 2022, the governor’s office is up again, and Brown will be barred by term limits from seeking a third term.
Beyond Walden and Buehler, other Republicans are little known beyond Salem and their home regions.
“Republicans are in a bad place to win statewide offices,” said Jim Moore, a Pacific University politics professor. “There is no bench coming up from the Legislature,”
The issue is most stark in the race for the U.S. Senate. Merkley was the state House speaker from Portland when he knocked off incumbent Republican U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith in a close 2008 race.
There’s no Republican equivalent of Merkley. The Legislature is run by Democrats. Democrats have a lock on Portland. The top two Republican lawmakers — House Minority Leader Carl Wilson and Senate Minority Leader Herman Baertschiger — are both from Grants Pass.
Merkley felt comfortable enough to spend time in Iowa, site of the first primary caucuses on Feb. 3 next year. His supporters were doing the math of how long he could stay in the presidential race before he would have to reverse course in time for the Oregon primary May 19, one of the last contests to decide the nomination.
But after polls failed to budge from showing Merkley near the rear of the ever-expanding pack of Democratic hopefuls, he pivoted back to a reelection bid for the Senate.
“I’m going to work to fix our broken and dysfunctional Senate so it isn’t just a graveyard for good ideas,” Merkley said. “To fix America we must fix the Senate.”
Republicans have complained that Merkley, Brown, Rosenblum and, to a lesser extent, Read have focused too much on national and international issues at the expense of Oregon.
But Democrats say they are only responding to what voters want, particularly since Donald Trump was elected president in 2016. The high-profile opposition to the Trump administration — Merkley’s trips to the Mexican border to highlight what he called a humanitarian crisis, Brown going to Germany to promote Oregon’s view of being at odds with Trump over climate change, and Rosenblum joining in dozens of lawsuits against the Trump administration — have been rewarded with Democratic success at the ballot box.
Molly Woon, deputy director of the Democratic Party of Oregon, said openly and repeatedly challenging Trump led to a voting surge for Democrats in 2018 up and down the ballot in Oregon. She says it will pay off even bigger in 2020 when Trump himself tops the ballot.
“Given the presidential election, it’s going to be hard for Republicans everywhere,” Woon said. “We don’t have any reason to think the ‘blue wave’ is over, especially with Democratic presidential candidates talking about issues such as college debt and with Roe v. Wade on the line.”
GOP sees opportunity in some statewide matchups
Republicans see possible openings in the statewide races, especially for secretary of state and treasurer.
While Clarno has said she won’t run, she selected former Republican Rep. Richard Vial as deputy secretary of state. Vial has made no pledge to stay out of the race.
Before Clarno’s appointment, state Republicans submitted names to Brown that the GOP said it could support. Rep. Gene Whisnant, R-Sunriver, was on the list.
So was former Rep. Katie Eyre, former Sen. Bill Kennemer and former House Speaker Lynn Snodgrass. While Brown opted to nominate Clarno, the names on the list remain as a starter pool of GOP candidates to seek the office in 2020.
There are plenty of Democrats said to be eyeing the race.
Officially out of the running: Bureau of Labor and Industries Commissioner Val Hoyle. She lost the primary for secretary of state in 2016 to then-incumbent BOLI commissioner (and Democrat) Brad Avakian.
But after winning the BOLI election last year, Hoyle said she didn’t plan to run again in 2020.
While Democrats are hoping voter antipathy to Trump may help their candidates, Republicans are likewise optimistic that voters will react negatively to the price tag on Democrats’ 2019 legislative programs for education, health care and a possible carbon pollution cap they believe will drive up fuel costs for residents.
Baertschiger, the Senate Republican leader, said voters would be in for a shock when the recent $2 billion package of taxes for K-12 education gets diverted into paying public employee pensions instead of showing up as improvements at neighborhood schools.
“In two years when the Legislature sets the budget once again, we will see the empty promises from the majority party as our schools continue to suffer,” Baertschiger forecast.
A quote early this year by Wilson, the GOP House leader, that a Democratic supermajority in the House meant Republicans were not even “speedbumps” on legislation has been often repeated. But at that same time, Wilson repeatedly said the outcome meant “Democrats own everything” that comes out of the 2019 session.
If voter dissatisfaction with the cost of Democratic programs does emerge next year, Republicans say one outlet would be the race for state treasurer.
Some Republicans want to make sure Read’s reelection is no slam dunk. They point to the 2016 election for possible inspiration.
After clearing the field of any opposition in the Democratic primary for treasurer, Read beat Republican financial analyst-turned-investor Jeff Gudman by just over 2 percentage points in the general election.
Former Sen. Chris Telfer, R-Bend, ran as the Independent Party nominee and captured over 9% of the vote. Many Republicans say Gudman would have won without Telfer in the race.
Read has kept a lower public profile than other statewide officeholders, and incumbency has a track record of normally boosting reelection chance. Gudman could seek another shot at Read, with the state GOP playing a more active role to ensure the choice is seen as a duel between the two by addressing third-party candidates as a concern earlier and more aggressively.
Republicans say there is a possible opening for an outsider with business experience to make a splash.
Moore, the Pacific University politics professor, said Oregon has not proved a fertile ground for the “outsider” message that has played well in other states. Any big name would likely want to aim for governor, not treasurer.
“Even then, it would take something like a (Nike founder) Phil Knight candidacy for the Republicans to have a chance,” Moore said. “That happened in 1930 as the Great Depression eroded political identities. Julius Meier, of Meier and Frank, ran as an independent and thoroughly beat the Republican and Democratic candidates.”
But speaking about all the statewide races, Moore said the time is not auspicious for an upset.
“There is no equivalent of a Depression going on right now, so even a Phil Knight would have an uphill battle against the Democratic trends in the state,” he said.
— Reporter: 541-640-2750, firstname.lastname@example.org