The prospects for the Independent Party of Oregon seemed to take a hit a few months back when its lead candidate, its candidate for the U.S. Senate, John Frohnmayer, dropped out. Or maybe that evolved into an opportunity. The Independents (capital I) still are running some candidates of their own this cycle, and they are growing, now the third largest party in the state. But their more significant role could be in their cross-endrosement of major party, Democratic and Republican, candidates.
They have endorsed U.S. Senate candidate Jeff Merkley (Democrat), 1st District House candidate Joel Haugen (Republican), and others. In some close races, and in races where the middle of the electorate is at stake, their participate could matter - how much, we have yet to see. But maybe the most interesting measure could come in state House District 18, where the endorsee - just announced today - is a Democrat named Jim Gilbert.
District 18 is a rural region in eastern Marion and Clackamas counties, historically strongly Republican, and by most evidence remains so: End of July voter registration there ran Republican 13,660, Democratic 11,319. The Republican incumbent, Vic Gilliam, has served almost the whole current term, but was appointed to the seat in December 2006, to replace Mac Sumner, who was ill. In the 2006 general election, Sumner defeated Gilbert, a Mollala nursery owner, with 53.9% of the vote. Not a big percentage considering that Sumner was an incumbent, and had beaten Gilbert in 2004 with 56.9%. Put another way, Gilbert improved his track record from 2004 to 2006.
His race now against Gilliam is not much on the radar screen - doesn't seem to be making the short lists of races to watch most closely, maybe because of the still-Republican tilt of the district and maybe because he's run unsuccessfully twice before.
But the district, like many other places in Oregon, is less Republican now than it was in November 2006 (there were then 14,114 Republicans to 10,445 Democrats - a larger gap than this summer). Another indicator of change in the district: In the May primary, Gilbert got 5,494 votes and Gilliam 5,141, a sharp reversal from May 2006 (when Gilbert got 3,070 votes and Sumner 4,056 and two other Republicans 1,085 - or, Democrat 3,070 versus Republicans 5,141). Taken together, this suggests a Gilbert win isn't entirely out of reason.
And, this time, there's the Independent Party endorsement of Gilbert, which means more money but also, maybe more important, some cover and other backing to suggest that Gilbert is the centrist candidate, in a district with 281 Independent Party members and 6,358 non-affiliated voters.
If Gilbert does win, this race could put the Independent Party on the radar screen right alongside its endorsed candidate. And candidates.