Writings and observations

OR: (A few) legislative primaries to watch

Today, as Oregon voters begin contemplating those voting spots on their primary election ballots, they’ll likely focus on the governor’s primaries mostly, then some of the other major offices. Only in a few places, at this point, will there be a lot of call to focus on the legislative races.

There aren’t a lot of contested primaries among the 75 legislative seats up. Republicans have primary contests for only about a fifth of them, and Democrats have contests in fewer than half that many. And most of those aren’t really major races. Some are contests between little-known candidates running against an incumbent who has a strong edge either in this election or in November.

But a few of these races will merit some discussion, and may let us draw some larger conclusions, after the numbers roll in. In order or interest (not competitiveness), here are five.

1 – District 58 House, Republican: Bob Jenson v. Michael Mathisen. Two very interesting primaries in northeast Oregon, in strongly Republican country, this one and in District 57 (see below). Jenson’s may be slightly more interesting because the contrast of candidates is so totally stark. Jenson is the incumbent, in fact the longest-serving House member, and though a Republican now he has been elected as a Democrat (in 1996) and an independent (in 1998) as well. Jenson’s ties in the Pendleton-centered district run deep, and his politics – as his party record shows – has tended conservative but is no rigid lock. That point came to a head in the 2009 legislative session when he and District 57’s Representative Greg Smith voted with Democrats for what became the Measures 66 and 67 tax increases. That drew a strong rebuke from party leadership together with explicit political punishment: A primary challenge for each of them.

Jenson’s challenger, Mathisen, has lived in Hermiston just three years – a newcomer by comparison, who has gotten his key support from Salem and Portland rather than in-district. But Jenson’s tax votes were a matter of controversy locally, too; and if the anti-tax crowd wants to make an example of a Republican legislator who crosses over, Jenson would be a classic case study. For Republican leadership, the risks are high: If Jenson survives, they may be exposed as toothless.

Presumption here is that he will survive the primary. But either way, there’ll be some significant lessons in it.

2 – District 57 House, Republican: Greg Smith v. Colleen MacLeod. The outlines of 57 are those of 58 – Smith and Jenson made similar votes (not exactly the same; Smith voted against one proposal). Smith, like Jenson, has been elected with slight competition for some years now, and he too is well-established, maybe a little less so. His opponent, MacLeod, is a former commissioner in Union county – herself better established and with her own base of support in her district than Mathisen in his, and she’s received a string of endorsements from conservative interest groups. This may be a more competitive race. But its implications are as real as in 58.

3 – District 19 Senate, Republican: Steve Griffith v. Mary Kremer. The eastern Oregon races have gotten a lot of attention for their high drama, this one less so; but its implications are significant. The 19th is in the Lake Oswego area, suburbs just south of Portland, an area considered solidly Republican until about a decade ago. But these were mostly moderate Republicans, and the voters were put off as the party swung harder to the right. They’ve been electing Democrats more recently; the incumbent here is Democrat Richard Devlin, who’s the Senate majority leader.

The Republicans, both experienced in Oregon politics, are distinctive. Former Portland School Board member (and 2008 state House candidate) Griffith, who has endorsements from the Oregonian and Willamette Week, is the moderate, a lot like the Republicans this area used to elect. Kremer is assumed to be the more conservative of the two and has backing from several conservative groups (Oregonians In Action, Oregon Freedom Works, Oregon Family Council, Common Sense for Oregon PAC). Which way will the Republican voters in 19 go? Analysts will be picking apart the tea leaves from this one whatever the result. (Our thin odds go to Griffith, but this race is clearly competitive, and Kremer appears to be running a strong campaign.)

4 – District 24 Senate, Democratic – Rod Monroe, Dave Mowry, Ron McCarty. Monroe, who is the incumbent and has been in elective politics around Portland for a very long time, probably doesn’t excite the base (and doesn’t tend to fare well in legislative rankings like WW). His longevity may not be a plus this year. But, Mowry is a former Republican who seems not to have left the old party entirely behind, and McCarty is a recurring candidate of whom, WW opined, his “elevator doesn’t climb all the way to the top floor.”

Bets probably should go to Monroe here. But keep a lookout for this one on election night in case it goes in some other direction. This is, in any event, maybe the most interesting Democratic legislative primary in Oregon this year. (Does that tell you something?)

5 – District 17 House, Republican – Sherrie Sprenger v. Bruce Cuff. In the first three races on this list, you have Republican contests where there’s what would probably be a genuine philosophical difference between the candidate on the conservative/moderate spectrum. Not so much here. Both are self-described as conservatives in the current environmental meaning, and there’s not much reason to dispute that in either case. Sprenger has a pretty solid roster of community backers and endorsers, what you’d expect from an established Republican legislator. But you’d have to say, after reviewing their campaign statements, that Cuff is considerably more emphatic about it – he has a long list of state programs he says he’d like to cut – and describes himself: “I am the conservative Republican in the race.” (A March blog post nailed some of that down more explicitly.) So, in today’s Republican environment, what sells?

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One Comment

  1. karichisholm said:

    I’d add the Democratic primary in HD 37, the seat vacated by Rep. Scott Bruun (R) to run for Congress.

    It features Joelle Davis, an Emerge Oregon alum and Tualatin city councilor; Gerritt Rosenthal, environmental scientist and activist; and Will Rasmussen, another one of those young up-and-comer attorneys that we’ve seen quite a few of lately.

    I’d also include the GOP primary in HD 51, the seat vacated by Rep. Brent Barton (D) to run for the State Senate.

    It features two young up-and-comers – Patrick Sheehan and John Swanson. I don’t know much about these guys, but they’re both running hard and winning establishment support in their party.

    May 3, 2010

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