G ov. Kate Brown is preparing to name a successor to Secretary of State Dennis Richardson, who died last month of brain cancer. Oregon Republicans, meanwhile, seem to be preparing to be very mad at her. They should take a deep breath and consider an alternative. Maybe yoga.
Richardson’s death has traumatized Republicans, and it’s easy to see why.
There is, first, the loss of the man himself, a thoughtful politician who earned praise from Democrats and Republicans alike.
There is, too, what Richardson represented: hope for Republicans, who’ve become accustomed to getting clobbered in statewide races.
In 2017, Richardson became the first Republican to hold the state’s second-highest elective office in more than 30 years. The previous November, he’d defeated Democrat Brad Avakian in an election that saw Democrats prevail in races for governor, treasurer and attorney general. Avakian, commissioner of the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries at the time, was an awful candidate, but still.
Following Richardson’s victory, Republicans quickly reverted to form, thanks in no small part to voter backlash against President Donald Trump and all things remotely connected to him. Such as Oregon Republicans. In November, Brown easily defeated Bend Republican Knute Buehler to retain the governor’s office.
If Republicans had any cause for optimism heading into 2020, at least for statewide office, it existed largely in the person of Richardson. If he chose to run again, he’d be doing so as an incumbent. Re-election might have been difficult anyway given the large number of registered Democrats in Oregon and the possibility that Trump will appear on the ballot. But Richardson had beaten the odds once and might have again.
Instead, Brown will choose a replacement, which is why Republicans seem to be preparing to be very angry. Or, perhaps more accurately, why they seem to be preparing to be very pretend angry. Surely people this savvy wouldn’t really fault Brown for doing something she’s perfectly entitled to do, and something for that matter a Republican governor would almost certainly do in her place.
And what is that? Brown will likely replace Richardson with what Willamette Week referred to jokingly as an “Unambitious Republican.”
Under state law, the governor gets to appoint Richardson’s successor. She must appoint someone from Richardson’s party, but nothing compels her to appoint someone good, not to mention electable.
Speaking of elections, in fact, Brown has said she’ll appoint only someone who promises not to run for election in 2020, just as she did following her own ascension to the governor’s office in 2015. She chose Jeanne Atkins to succeed her as secretary of state, and Atkins, as promised, didn’t run in 2016, clearing the way for Richardson’s victory.
Republicans are understandably concerned about the sort of person Brown will choose. They’d prefer someone who will serve in spirit of Richardson, who notably made effective use of the office’s audit function. To do otherwise, Republicans have suggested, would be an insult to the voters who elected Richardson.
To nudge Brown in the proper direction, the party has whipped up a short list of acceptable candidates. While Brown is “open to considering the names the Republican Party submits,” she isn’t committing to such a thing, spokeswoman Kate Kondayen wrote in an email Tuesday.
The appointment, wrote Kondayen, would happen “in the coming weeks.”
Brown may, in a magnanimous gesture, choose a successor from the party’s list. She may choose someone not on the list whom Republicans find acceptable. And then, she might decide to install a glorified seat-warmer with an R behind his or her name, effectively shelving the office until voters choose a successor.
The latter scenario would be disappointing, and Republicans should say that. But pitching a fit would be a mistake. Because, really, who’d believe it?
If a Republican governor were looking to replace a Democratic secretary of state, he or she would do so would be guided by a desire to see a Republican elected in 2020. That’s politics. In that scenario, Avakian might even get a call to pinch hit for a couple of years.
Rather than cuing up fake outrage in response to an unsurprising political appointment, Republicans should seek strong candidates for the office and prepare for a fight next year. While they won’t have the advantage of incumbency, Richardson’s successful tenure in the office will continue to serve them well.
Unless, of course, Republicans squander his reputation for maturity by having an unconvincing tantrum.
— Erik Lukens is editor of The Bulletin.