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Going indy

Oregon had an independent – politically independent, unaffiliated with party – governor once. His name was Julius Meier, and he was a businessman from Portland.

The year was 1930, and the issues at hand concerned responses to the Great Depression and calls for creation of public power projects and utilities. Public power was growing fast in popularity, but it faced obstacles, including major political figures both among the Democrats and Republicans. After heated battles, both parties nominated candidates for governor who were opposed to public power. (This is, of course, oversimplifying a complex struggle.) Meier was among the liberal Republicans who favored public power, and he entered the race as an independent. He wound up sweeping the general election, taking more votes than the major-party candidates together.

Ben WestlundHard to envision a truly comparable scenario now for Ben Westlund, a Republican state senator from the Bend area (more specifically, Tumalo, just north of Bend) who has split from that party and now describes himself as an independent, and who may or may not run for governor.

This has been coming for a long time, well before Westlund’s active support in Salem for gay rights, among other things. In an article on the switch in the Bend Bulletin, he said, “As I continued to examine my role in the party, it became clear to me that it just wasn’t a good fit and wasn’t intellectually honest. They’re unhappy with me half the time, I’m unhappy with them half the time.” But the Democratic Party wouldn’t be a comfortable fit either, he says, and he makes a good case for that too.

The more immediate question now is, what will this mean – for the governor’s race, for Westlund’s Senate seat, and for the voters of the Bend area.

None of these offer immediately easy answers.

Westlund isn’t saying whether he will run for governor, but the 1930 dynamic doesn’t look likely to repeat. The overwhelming majority of Oregon voters probably will vote for the Republican or Democratic nominee, and most of those unhappy with the choices are more likely to be at the edges of the spectrum, on either side, rather than in the middle.

But what of Westlund’s Senate seat? Is it defensible by an independent?

His persnoal history in-district is strong enough: elected four times in a row to the House, then appointed to the Senate in 2003. In his 2004 Senate race, he was opposed only by a Constitution Party candidate, and he swept about 80% of the vote. The last time he faced a Democrat, running for the House in 2002, he took about two-thirds of the vote.

Clearly he has some local popularity. Clearly too he was a Republican running in a Republican territory. District 27, which includes Bend, Redmond and Sisters and the high country around them (including a lot of the voters in unorganized La Pine) have been solidly Republican for a long time.

Senate District 27

Last election, there were some indicators that Bend itself might be softening in its Republican support. Back in November 2004, for example, we pointed to “a close House race [at Bend] – the Democrat in District 54 came within a percentage point or so of beating the Republican, a startlingly good showing, and possibly a focal point for 2006.”

Could Westlund, with his personal popularity (admittedly, not still in all quarters), pull off a plurality win against a Republican and a Democrat?

Maybe. If he did – and this would be in 2008, when the seat next is up – it would say something about trends in the Bend area.

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