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Political notes: Spring blooms with new voters and campaign dollars

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Oregon Capital Bureau

Spring officially arrived on March 20 at 8:33 a.m., marking a change of seasons and a change of political tempo of Oregon’s political campaigns.

Along with blooming daffodils, spring marked the awakening of any politicians still hibernating this long into the 2022 primary election.

Political ads returned to television and former governors popped out of retirement to announce their endorsements. Campaign “expenditures” tallied by the Secretary of State picked up the pace.

On Monday, it was just 50 days until the May 17 primary. News and moves as March comes to end include:

Primaries closed to over one million voters

The number of registered voters in Oregon who are not affiliated with any political party has topped one million, accounting for the largest slice of the electorate. But they’ll have no say in the May 17 primaries that decide who appears on the Nov. 8 general election ballot.

First the numbers: The Secretary of State monthly voter registration report for March showed 1,022,556 non-affiliated voters. That surpasses the 1,019,668 registered Democrats. Republicans remain in third place, with 723,728.

The Independent Party is the only other party with fairly large numbers, registering 139,674 voters. A host of other parties ranging from the Constitution Party on the right to the Pacific Green Party on the left account for 62,005 registered voters.

All those non-affiliated voters will be shut out of the May 17 primaries. Oregon gives political parties the right to determine who votes in their primaries and they’ve kept a status quo: Democrats vote for Democrats and Republicans vote for Republicans.

Attempts to change the law to open primaries

Oregon is a hold-out on using closed primaries. Washington in 2004 was the first state to go to “top two” primaries in which all candidates appear on the primary ballot and the top two vote-getters advance to the general election. California has used a similar system since 2010.

But Oregon voters have shot down ballot measures to create open primaries in 2008 and 2014.

Oregon Republican Party chair Dallas Heard, a state senator from Roseburg, called in February for Republicans to open their 2022 primary. But the idea was rejected at a meeting of party leaders.

The non-affiliated voters are not a bloc

Jim Moore, a professor at Pacific University and outreach director of the Tom McCall Center for Civic Engagement, has noted that an analysis of voting patterns show the non-affiliated vote tends to mimic the partisan vote in any race. A non-affiliated voter in Portland is likely to vote Democratic and one in Ontario is likely to choose a Republican.

There’s also the question of motivation. Medford City Councilor Kevin Stine, a Democrat, said on social media that non-affiliated voters are less likely to turn in a ballot in November.

“There will be more registered Dems that vote in November 2022 than registered NAVs,” Stine said. “There’s a big population of now-registered voters who are cycled into NAV that will choose not to vote.”

McLeod-Skinner gets more party nods

County Democratic Party organizations in Clackamas and Marion County have endorsed Jamie McLeod-Skinner in her insurgent bid to beat U.S. Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Canby, in the Democratic primary for the 5th Congressional District.

McLeod-Skinner previously won the endorsements of the Deschutes and Linn county parties. Multnomah County Democrats have not endorsed. That leaves McLeod-Skinner short by 20,218 registered voters of the 170,681 Democrats represented by the five county parties in the district. In an anomaly of the redistricting process, the 5th district also includes four Democratic voters in a sliver of Jefferson County along the boundaries.

Kristof’s $1 million non-campaign

Former New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof’s 128-day campaign for governor rang-up over $1 million in spending before it was officially killed by the Oregon Supreme Court.

State campaign finance records show that through Monday, Kristof raised over $2 million since creating a campaign finance committee on Oct. 12, 2021. Secretary of State Shemia Fagan knocked Kristof off the ballot on Jan. 20, saying he did not meet the residency requirement in the Oregon Constitution.

Kristof challenged Fagan’s interpretation in an appeal to the Oregon Supreme Court. It ruled against Kristof on Feb. 17, 2022.

The “Nick for Oregon” political action committee has reported raising over $2 million and spending $1,064,876.34.

Some of the top expenditures included $274,588.70 for legal work by the Seattle-based firm of Perkins Coie LLP. Classic Choice of Wilsonville received $304,806.82 for “payroll wages” going to Kristof’s campaign workers. Bully Pulpit, a San Francisco digital marketing firm, was paid $160,000 for ads categorized as “persuasion.” GMMB, a Washington, D.C. firm handling “media buys,” collected $98,875.99 from Kristof.

Kristof still has $$1,051,523.25 in the bank. Fagan’s office said early this year that the money was not directly tied to her decision that ended Kristof’s campaign. The remaining funds can be returned to contributors, given to other campaigns, or remain parked in a dormant account while Kristof decides his political future.

Primary passivity

The 2022 primary has a slew of important races but lacks the most reliable attraction for voters: A presidential election. So-called “midterm” elections always fall well short of turnout compared to years with a race for the White House on the ballot. 

The 2022 election is the first time since 2002 that the race for governor will not have an incumbent or former governor on the ballot. Voters will also choose who will represent the state’s new U.S. House district, with two other likely tight congressional races.

Add in a bumper crop of new voters, mostly unaffiliated “motor voters” who can’t vote in closed primaries and you have a formula for a lower percentage of people who receive ballots in the mail, but never send them back.  

In the 16 primary elections since 1990, more than half of Oregon’s registered voters have cast ballots just three times: 2000, 2008, and 2016 — all presidential election years without an incumbent in the White House seeking a second term.

The last time over 70% of registered primary voters actually voted was in 1968, when 74% of voters cast ballots. Oregon was one of just 14 states at the time to hold primaries.

Bolstered by the high turnout, liberal Sen. Eugene McCarthy if Minnesota, beat Sen. Robert F. Kennedy of New York in the Democratic race. Richard Nixon won the GOP primary.

The lowest primary turnout was 2018 when just 34% voted

In general elections, Oregon’s biggest turnout was in 1960 when 86.5% cast ballots, with then Vice-President Richard Nixon beating Sen. John F. Kennedy, D-Mass, 52%-48%. Kennedy won the national vote.

The lowest was in 1978, when just over 63% voted. Republican Vic Atiyeh had upset the political comeback of former Gov. Tom McCall in the primary, then went on to beat incumbent Democrat Robert Straub. Atiyeh would go on to win re-election in 1982. He was the last Republican to win a race for governor, as voters have chosen Democrats in every race through 2018.


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