Writings and observations

Maybe someone has done this before, but I’m unaware of any partisan candidate for high office in Washington, Oregon or Idaho who ever has. And to do it in the uncommonly polarized atmosphere of 2010 is nearly unbelievable.

Oregon Democratic Senator Ron Wyden, who is being seriously opposed this year by Republican Jim Huffman, released his list of campaign county chairs, a structure in each county.

Nothing unusual there. Here’s what is: In all 36 Oregon counties, Wyden has Democratic and Republican co-chairs. As well as statewide Republican and Democratic co-chairs. (I cannot find a reference to a matching structure for Wyden in 2004; if he did then, let me know.)

Not all of the Republican co-chairs are exactly prominent Republicans. But within their respective counties, a considerable number of them are. The Republicans include a county commissioner in Clatsop, the mayor of Coos Bay in Coos County, a county judge in Crook County, a commissioner in Grant County, the mayor of Ontario in Malheur County, among others; quite a few of the remainder are prominent local business leaders.

Can anyone think of another statewide candidate for public office in the three states who has pulled off the same type of local endorsement structure within the opposing party?

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Oregon

A short note on tonight’s Idaho gubernatorial debate on KTVB-TV, between incumbent Republican C.L. “Butch” Otter, Democrat Keith Allred and independent Jana Kemp. Basic point: It was more or less a three-way tie.

Otter did a lot better tonight than at his debate with Allred at Idaho Falls. This time he left obsessions with the federal government, the constitution and the 10th amendment, and what then felt like serious anger, at the door, and instead got into the practical details of managing the state and charting a direction. He presented himself much less ideologically, and to much better effect. He didn’t seem especially smooth or comfortable, but he did seem at least capable and well grounded.

Allred was maybe too grounded, mired in details where he shouldn’t have been (how many non-wonk voters actually followed the talk about whether the budget shortfall was in which fiscal year?) and not enough in some other places (he continues to open himself up for attack with his approach on sales tax exemptions, valid though his core point on it may be). Still comes across as highly informed and gubernatorial, though, and he had a nice closing.

Kemp was the surprise: At least a match in this debate for either of them – as good a debater, clear, informed but concise. If quality of debate were the measure for participation (and for most debate formats, it isn’t), she easily merited a place on stage.

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Idaho

Last week, while in a group chat during a teacher conference, Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa (a Republican) was asked if he would show up at the court oral argument a few days hence, in the case of Idaho Republican Party v. Ysursa. Ysursa smiled and said he might not attend all of it, because he was also planning to be travelling around the Treasure Valley on the GOP unity bus.

The joke reflects neatly on the catch the Idaho Republican Party is in. It may be the the most electorally successful Republican Party in the 50 states – the trial brief for Ysursa and the state of Idaho argues specifically that it is, and the point would be hard to dispute. But the party structure and leadership has gone so far as to sue the state (which is overwhelmingly governed by Republican officials) to change the way primary elections are conducted, on the argument that the party is being damaged by the way Idaho runs them.

The Idaho system (which is different from Oregon’s, which is also different from Washington’s) allows voters at primary election time to choose a ballot from one party and stick to the contests within it (along with some non-partisan choices, as for judges). But voters do that in secret; there’s no way of specifically knowing which party a staunch Republican or Democrat chooses while in the voting booth.

And it would be hard to sell the idea that within the Republican Party, conservatives are being shut out by primary elector voters. This year’s Idaho primary, for example, was most notable for the defeat of relatively moderate candidates by more-conservative ones in a string of races – hardly an indicator of Democrats or Democratic sympathizers exerting a lot of undue influence.

Still, in their brief, the party argues that a lot of voting in Republican Party primaries by non-party members occurs. And there’s no real doubt that it does. It cites a Moore poll saying that 39% of non-Republicans who vote typically vote in Republican primaries. The state brief attacks the methodology, but intuitively, the Moore number seems somewhere about right. (Polling indicates that somewhere around a third of Idaho voters consider themselves independent, but very likely few refrain from voting in the Republican primary.)

The party also tries to nail down a degree to which this affects the end results, and that is almost impossible to know for certain. Crossover voting seems to be extremely hard to orchestrate, and serious efforts at orchestration don’t seen to be very common. None of which may matter. Even the fact that it may be unknowable in a conclusive way sort of helps the party’s case.

The case may turn on the question of affiliation: To what extent do members of a political party get to choose who they affiliate with? The state (defending the current system) said the right is de minimis – minor – while the party suggests it is much more central. It may be hard to control even in places that require overt party registration. In Oregon, for example, where voters register by party preference (or none), voters can vote only on the primary for which they have publicly expressed a preference. But that doesn’t stop some voters from switching to another party just before a primary, and back just after. Still, party registration could be a party-strengthening tool. (What you think of that may depend on what you think of the parties.)

The party and state briefs are not very long and well worth the read. Mark this down as a case that could realistically go either way.

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Idaho

You will search in vain for any credible political analyst who will say that Idaho Republican Senator Mike Crapo, running for re-election this year against little-known Democrat Tom Sullivan, is in any risk. And they’re right: Crapo is as likely to win as any Senate candidate in the country this year, as close to a slam dunk as you get. (Recall our policy: Nothing is ever 100% likely until after it happens.)

Maybe that’s why Sullivan’s debate this evening was so strong – maybe the most powerful challenger’s debate by a Democratic major office candidate we’ve seen in years. If you’re not going to win, why not simply go for it – put your strongest case and your real thinking out there, even if it does anger some people? While Sullivan didn’t make every point perfectly, and he made some questionable references, he skillfully constructed an argument that sliced into important parts of Crapo’s talking points and exposed some of the problems with them.

Sullivan, a first-time candidate and small businessman from Teton County, went right after Crapo from beginning to end. He attached him to Wall Street interests, with policy and campaign finance links, contrasted the benefits under tax policy received by the wealthy and the middle class, and let up nowhere. Even on the one occasion when he offered a compliment – on Crapo’s work in developing and passing the Owyhee Canyonlands legislation – he tossed in the barb that it was about his only major accomplishment in 12 years in the Senate. Most Idaho Democrats are hesitant to go after established Republicans this way (and not many probably have this much skill). Sullivan, while keeping his cool, dominated the debate against one of Idaho’s most experienced and well-liked politicians.

Crapo wasn’t at good advantage; he seemed seriously off his game. For much of his career the usual description of the man (here as elsewhere) was as a genial, affable guy with strong opinions but who got along with, and could work with, everybody. He was like that 12 years ago when he debated Democrat Bill Mauk, in what was one of the classiest and most high-minded set of debates the state has ever seen – as noted in this space way back then, you felt uplifted just watching the two of them. That Crapo was a world away from who we saw tonight: A man who came across as deeply angry and bitter, the more so as the debate wore on. Was the unvarnished Sullivan getting to him? Had immersion in Washington’s never-ending hate-fest?

He was also reduced from the thinking-man’s debate of 1998 to, today, just another rote reciter of national GOP talking points. Crapo’s personality, or at least the Crapo many Idahoans have known over the years, seemed buried away from view.

So too his ties to Idaho. Crapo was born and raised in Idaho, returned to Idaho Falls to practice law when he easily could have had a much more lucrative career in a big city, represented eastern Idaho in the legislature, half of the state in the U.S. House and all of it for a dozen years in the Senate, undoubtedly knowing Idaho extremely well … and yet tonight displayed practically no personal connection to it. (Sullivan made many more Idaho-specific references.) In the debate he made perfunctory references, and yes, they were perfunctory, to “Idaho” governing values (which he didn’t elucidate, or offer provenance), and to the Owyhee Canyonlands, and that was it. Otherwise, this could have been a cookie-cutter Republican senator from any state in the country. He didn’t even sound like an Idahoan; he sounded programmed by Republican consultants.

None of this is likely to change the election results, of course. Crapo is as near a lock for the seat as you can get.

But the debate was absolutely remarkable. Watch it via the Idaho Public Television debate page.

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Idaho

Now this one is remarkable – one of the more remarkable political spots of the season, and it doesn’t even mention the opposing campaign. It is – dare we say it? – intelligently motivational.

The spot, by Denny Heck – the Democrat running for the House in Washington’s 3rd, against Republican Jaime Herrera – is about the economy and jobs, and takes full note of the public anger about those subjects. But it provides some appropriate direction for it: To those people who created the mess, as opposed to those who are trying (at least) to solve it.

One of the best Northwest spots of the season.

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Washington

Washington state seems to have an abundance of competitive legislative races this year; Oregon … less so. The Oregonian Sunday offered a list of 16 races – 10 in the House and a half-dozen in the Senate – worth a close watch. It matches up generally with what we’ve seen and heard, but a few additional words seem in order.

First, there’s the relative closeness of the chambers. In the Senate, Democrats control 18-12 (with half the seats, mostly Democratic up for election); in the House, it’s 36-24. That means Republicans could pull to a tie in the Senate picking up three seats and in the House picking up six. Those are not enormous numbers. Even closer striking distance is the number they need to pick up – one in each chamber – to eliminate the Democrats’ 60% control in each chamber, the level needed to approve tax increases and some other measures.

The 60% level, hinging as it does on a single seat, could be at risk in any year. But if there’s little talk of a realistic prospect of Republicans taking over either chamber in Oregon this year, and there’s not been much such talk, the reasons have to do with the nature of the individual races.

Simply, a number of seats could flip, but the odds seem to favor both sides doing some gaining and losing. So the second point is that these 16 races (and it reads like a good collection of significant contests) are not all made equal.

The six Senate seats in the Oregonian list, in districts 3, 8, 15, 19, 20 and 26, show as much. Four are now held by Democrats, two by Republicans; Republicans would have to run the table of winning all of those Democratic seats and losing none of their own.

The single most likely party flip of the group looks like District 26, centered on eastern Multnomah County and Hood River County and held by a Democrat for years, but competitive. This is an open seat, which usually makes things more competitive. Hood River County Commissioner Chuck Thomsen, the Republican, looks to have the odds there, though the Democrats have a hard-working candidate too (Brent Barton, now a House member). This one is a close call.

The other five look a little less so. In 20 (the Oregon City area), Democrat Martha Schrader (wife of U.S. Representative Kurt Schrader) is running for the first time for the Senate, after her appointment to replace her husband; but she was long established on the Clackamas County Commission, has a solid base and seems a pretty good bet for election. In 15 (the Hillsboro area), Republican incumbent Bruce Starr has an aggressive opponent in state Representative Chuck Riley, and the campaign has turned hot; but most of the betting goes to the more established Starr. The other three incumbents being challenged, Democrats Richard Devlin and Alan Bates and Republican Frank Morse, also seem too well established in their districts. Their electoral track records are solid, they are good campaigners, and while the campaigns against each are serious, none seem at this point to have the kind of specific issues likely to do them in.

On the House side, the Oregonian‘s 10 includes six seats now held by Democrats and four by Republicans. Of those, two challengers to incumbents – Republicans Sal Equivel in 6 (the Medford area) and Jim Weidner in 24 (Yamhill County) – look like uphill climbs. (We’ll get into that a little more in a future post.) So does the Republican effort in 29 (Hillsboro area) where Democrat Katie Riley, seeking to follow in place her husband Chuck, has the benefit of an established name that’s been winning locally for a while. The other seven seats, though (five now Democratic, two now Republican) all look pretty closely competitive and could reasonably go either way; four of these seats are open this election.

What this adds up to, barring a truly massive wave or some other unpredictable element, and simply playing the odds, is what may be Republican net pickups of one in the Senate and something like two to three in the House.

Maybe. This could be an unusual year. Keep watching.

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Oregon

Berch
Steve Berch
DeMordaunt
Reed DeMordaunt

Legislative District 14 in Idaho is one of those places in the Northwest familiar to both both parties: An easy get for one party, seemingly impossible for the other. Think of central Portland or Seattle for Republicans; so District 14, which takes in much of northwest Ada County, has been for Idaho Democrats.

There’s just very little meaningful data to suggest that this suburban area, which includes Eagle and suburbs near and northwest of Boise, will give Republicans anything less than a big landslide. You might ordinarily figure that a Republican candidate in a general election, any Republican, will get two-thirds of the vote; less would be mediocre.

One of the legislative seats here, the one held by Republican Raul Labrador – now running for Congress – is open, and a busy primary was held. The nominee, Reed DeMordaunt, might be considered the representative-in-waiting.

What’s interesting here is DeMordaunt actually has serious opposition, in what might be the strongest Democratic legislative campaign in Idaho this year. Steve Berch, a consultant formerly of Hewlett-Packard, is running a well-worked-out contest in what looks like an impossible situation. How well he does, however well that is, is going to be studied closely. And should be.

The larger point is this: If Idaho Democrats are ever going to become even competitive with Republicans, one of the prerequisites will be winning in the Boise-area suburbs; the population center around Boise is not far from half of the state’s overall population, and if it turned Democratic the parties could be competitive in the state.

There’s ample Northwest precedent for this, of course. The switch of the Seattle and Portland suburbs from generally Republican to generally Democrats transformed Washington and Oregon politics. (Of course, we’ll see what happens this year.) Could it happen in Idaho too?

District 14 may be one of the tougher districts in the Boise area for Democrats to crack; there’s little apparent constituency for them. On the other hand, Democrat Walt Minnick won District 14, narrowly, in 2008. Does that indicate some willingness to look at a Democrat running a serious campaign?

Berch has been running hard, and outlined his campaign over coffee in Boise last week. He has been campaigning full time since May, focusing on carefully targeted door to door campaigning, and on conversing at some length with the people he sees. He’s not folksy; the technocrat in him shows through. But so does his seriousness and willingness to study what he’s doing. His decades of living in the district, and years of work on neighborhood projects, and connections at HP (its main Idaho plant is in the district), could help. This may be the most serious, well-planned and thoroughly-executed campaign by a Democrat this district has ever seen.

Berch’s message isn’t exactly Republican-lite, either; he draws a distinction between his views and those of the Republicans in the area.

The question arises: Can a Democrat running this way win in an area that Republicans have simply assumed, for good reason, is theirs?

And no doubt they do. The race has generated some interest among Democrats, but less among Republicans. This is the home district not only of Labrador but of House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, who has been a leader among the more conservative members of the chamber (which is saying something). There’s been no meaningful competition there for many years.

There’s a possibility that’s a problem for them: Getting a reputation for taking the district for granted (which they probably do). Passing on debates, for example. From a press release Berch delivered this weekend:

The League of Women Voters of Idaho, with support from the Boise League of Women voters, invited Steve Berch and Reed DeMordaunt, candidates for House Seat 14B, to participate in a public debate. The invitation was made on September 25, 2010. Dr. Jim Weatherby, professor emeritus at Boise State University, agreed to moderate the debate which would be held at the Arts West School in Eagle at 7:00pm. The League proposed five dates to conduct the debate: October 20, 21, 22, 26, 27.

Steve Berch, the Democratic Party candidate, agreed to participate on any of the dates that were proposed. Reed DeMordaunt, the Republican Party candidate refused to participate, stating that “work, family, and previously scheduled campaign events” gave him few opportunities to meet for a one hour evening debate with over four week’s advance notice.

In response, Steve Berch issued the following statement:

Voters in District 14 should be concerned and dismayed by Mr. DeMordaunt’s refusal to participate in a debate hosted by the League of Women Voters and moderated by Dr. Jim Weatherby.

Mr. DeMordaunt appears to be taking voters for granted by not taking one hour of his time to explain himself and his position on the issues in a professional, neutral setting. I appreciate and respect the need for candidates to balance personal responsibilities with campaign obligations. But it appears unreasonable to me that Mr. DeMordaunt cannot make himself available for just one hour to appear before the public after being given one month’s notice. Voters have reason to question how much time Mr. DeMordaunt will commit himself to listening, respecting and representing them if he is elected.

I pledge to spend 100% of my time doing my job as Representative of the people while the legislature is in session. I will set aside my consulting business and work full-time trying to grow jobs and adequately fund education. I will fight to protect education from the 18% budget cuts that Mr. DeMordaunt’s party is preparing voters to expect next year.

How well will all this work? The numbers will tell, soon enough.

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Idaho

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

Watch this clip from the Rachel Maddow show of her interaction with the … unusual, would that be a reasonably neutral word? – congressional candidate in District 4, Art Robinson, the Republican trying to unseat Democrat Peter DeFazio.

Interaction, in that what you’ll see here isn’t anything like an interview, notwithstanding Maddow’s attempt to conduct one. (We’ve read enough of Robinson’s newsletter postings on line to know that the quotes Maddow cites are reasonably representative of the material.)

Then try to imagine actually conversing with this guy – or try to imagine him actually working with other people to get anything done in Congress. The mind boggles.

Meantime, take specific note of his dodge, minute after minute, of the basic and simple question about massive amounts of anonymous money pouring into the district. The fast avoidance footwork says all you need to know.

Even in a surreal political environment filled with Christine O’Donnells, Sharron Angles and Joe Millers, Robinson sets some new standards.

Check out this article from AlterNet backgrounding Robinson, noting that “he has proposed dumping radioactive waste and crude oil waste at sea. But wait! There’s more. For a the better part of a decade at least Robinson has been reprinting, marketing, and selling a virulently racist 19th Century English boys’ adventure novel that suggests Africans are like retarded children.”

Read through, and you’ll also find the links Robinson has to particularly extreme Christian Reconstructionist activists, through his home-schooling curriculum (it is aimed at “parents concerned about socialism in the public schools”); be sure and read all the way to the end.

ALSO We might note here that most active scientists are associated with organizations which help support research, most often higher education institutions, corporations or nonprofit organizations. Robinson’s recent (as in, the last few decades) association seems to be largely with this one, which he created, about seven miles from the nearest small town, Cave Junction. Its sources of income are unclear.

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Oregon

You always know, when the mandatory candidate voice comes on an ad right at the beginning, that it’ll be harsh. And this one, by Senator Patty Murray doing a “comparative” against Republican Dino Rossi, is.

Except that so is this other one, in which Dino Rossi placed his audio mark at the end. The thinking would be interesting to know. In any event, both give you a sense of the state of play in the race right now. Surely at least, fairly close (or they wouldn’t both be running negatives).

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Washington

The 2009 election that is, for one of the seats on the Coeur d’Alene city council.

It was close, to be sure. Incumbent Mike Kennedy has led over the last year over challenger Jim Brannon by fewer votes than most of us have fingers. For a long stretch during the hearings, recounts, court actions and so on, Kennedy led by about five. After all was done, he won by three.

Just another reminder, as we head into another voting season, that your vote counts.

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Idaho