Writings and observations

Contests to watch on Tuesday night (and in Washington’s case, maybe a bit beyond). This isn’t one of the hottest off-year generals around (and for the most part quiet in Idaho, with fewer heated city elections than usual). But here’s some of what you should keep your eyes on Tuesday night. (We will.)

1 – WA: Initiative 1183, on privatizing liquor sales. By a long shot the hot contest in Washington this season – it has even grabbed the attention of a lot of people in Oregon (which may take up a similar contest soon if this one passes). Polling has indicated it’s ahead – meaning that liquor sales in certain private stores may be in the cards. But the issue is so heated little is certain.

2 – OR: U.S. House 1 primary. The Republican side appears all but foregone – Rob Cornilles, a skilled candidate, has run another solid race in the primary. But will the Tea Party roar up against him at the last? You can’t entirely rule it out; if they do, they have a contender in Jim Greenfield. On the Democratic side, polling has given a large lead to state Senator Suzanne Bonamici. But keep a watch: state Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian may be closer to the activist crowd who will be sure to vote in an otherwise low-turnout election. And watch too the percentage of the other major Democratic candidate, state Representative Brad Witt. Cornilles will be a strong Republican candidate; it matters who the Democrats nominate (and what sort of campaign that nominee runs).

3 – WA: Spokane mayoral. First-term Mayor Mary Verner, who had a complicated path to the job four years ago, seemed for most of this year to be a clear prospect for re-election. That’s now in question: Challenger David Condon has the backing of the local Republican organization (this is a non-partisan seat, but still) and the Spokesman-Review, and is running on a small-government, cut-city-pay platform. Allegations of what sound like push polling are in the mix, and there’s a poll result (of some kind) indicating fast closure. This has turned into a heated and complex race, and it has become hard to call.

4 – Initiative 1125, on transportation tolling and light rail. It’s been surprisingly low-key for a Tim Eyman special, but this one is pretty impactful. Ballotpedia describes it this way: “The initiative would prohibit gas tax and toll revenues to be diverted to non-transportation purposes. It would also require that lawmakers approve toll rates. According to reports, the proposed initiative would require that tolls end on a road or bridge once the project’s construction is paid off. Variable tolls rates that depend on the time of day truckers and drivers use the road or bridge would also be outlawed.” It has also been described as a subtle but effective attack on light rail and mass transit generally. There are so many details packed into this one; how many voters will grasp them all? And what will they think if they do?

5 – ID: Meridian mayoral. Even just a few weeks ago, this looked like a slam dunk for incumbent Mayor Tammy De Weerd, a two-term incumbent who has seemed relatively uncontroversial even as her city has grown explosively to become Idaho’s third-largest. (There are no indicators that Boise’s mayoral race, where David Bieter also is running for a third term, will be anything other than an easy incumbent win.) She’s had fairly broad community support, and the advantage of not one, not two, not three but four challengers to split the opposition vote. One of those, however, clearly is the major alternative candidate: former state Senator Gerry Sweet, who also worked briefly for one-term U.S. Representative Bill Sali. He has become the candidate of the hard right Tea Party people, who make up a large portion of the active Meridian electorate. (This is a very, very conservative city.) Normal political dynamics would argue against a Sweet win in such a fractured field. But there’s some serious activism and organization behind him, and he’s not looking like the longshot he seemed to be a month ago. If he does win here, there will be shock waves, certainly across southern Idaho.

6 – WA: House District 49. There are two legislative elections in Washington this year, owing to resignations and appointments. In District 49, new Democratic Representative Sharon Wylie is running as “an independent voice” (always a good idea in Clark County) is facing Republican Craig Riley, who lost a race for the other House seat here last year (and lost a 1990 run as well; both races were fairly close). (Wylie actually is also a former Oregon legislator.) The Columbian has backed Wylie, but this looks like a tight, tough race. It’s a Democratic district, so a Riley win would send some shock waves.

7 – ID: Eagle mayoral. So you say city elections in the Northwest are non-partisan? Hmpf. Here we have state Republican Party Chair (also a private practice attorney, head of the state water users association – when does he sleep?) Norm Semanko (who’s also – almost forgot – on the Eagle City Council) running for mayor. Against the incumbent, James Reynolds, who’s lower key, and retired. The Idaho Statesman, endorsing Reynolds, argues: “After years of drama and turnover, City Hall needs more stability and less political theater.” Issues? Well, there’s the Greenbelt, city spending, municipal relations – but you’ve got the picture.

8 – WA: Senate District 4. In the Spokane area, two Republicans face off; this race has some interest, since it features a new incumbent (Jeff Baxter) against a veteran legislator and judge active in office starting in 1981 (Mike Padden). Long-time experience or the new incumbent (“Jeff is not another career politician satisfied with the status quo”)?

NOTE: The last of these, in Washington District 4, is a race for the Washington Senate, not House, as was originally noted. The reference was corrected.

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Oregon City
Oregon City (when Blue Heron was still active)/Randy Stapilus

Over the long run, Clackamas County, the southern of the three Portland-area metro counties, has been a competitive place.

For several decades until 1994 Democrats held a small edge in party registration; the 1994 sweep broad in a Republican lead in party registration, when Democrats took higher numbers again. Its voting record is more varied, though. On the presidential level, it supported Democrats only when they won nationally (since Lyndon Johnson in 1964, only Bill Clinton twice, and Barack Obama in 2008). It voted in governor’s races Republican in 2010, Democratic in 2006, Republican in 2002, Democratic from 1990 to 1998 but nearly always Republican before that.

Sop you could say that shifts in Clackamas do happen: Its voters, as a whole, are not a lock.

An Oregonian article today makes the case that Clackamas is seeing a conservative surge (“Frustrated conservatives in Clackamas County gain momentum“), and on the evidence there’s something to it, but only to a point, and with a lot of asterisks.

“For some, the resurgence is simply part of the natural political rebalancing. But regardless of the cause, many county political leaders agree that the current resurgence – at times combative and uncivil – has real teeth,” the article notes. And there’s some reason for thinking so. Republicans did well in Clackamas in 2010 – its legislative elections were central to the Republican gains that year – and there’s an anti-Portland edge alive and well that isn’t really replicated in Washington County, its suburban counterpart to the northwest. In Clackmas, streetcar and rail developments from Portland south are controversial – not so much in Washington – and what might have been a modest and quiet $5 fee to repair a key bridge many county residents use (the Sellwood) was defeated at the polls. Conservatives and Republicans are highly active in Clackamas.

Economic concerns may be a little sharper in Clackamas than in the other two counties, and may be pointed up more visibly with the recent closure of the iconic Blue Heron paper mill at Oregon City. And a number of local governments (non-partisan) have seen seats shift from moderate or liberal incumbents to more-conservative challengers.

A few more points ought to be made, however, about all this.

Democrats remain a substantial party registration lead, by about 8,000 voters. The gap between the two parties is about two-thirds of what it was at its peak in 2008, but it has held steady for a couple of years – there’s been no recent change.

After 2008, Democrats held most of the offices, a large majority of them, in this competitive county; some correction probably was likely in any event. In 2012, Democrats will have some targets of their own, as well as some well-established candidates who aren’t running as incumbent (former House Speaker Dave Hunt, running now for commission chair, comes to mind) and the activism is more likely to cut both ways.

All of which suggests that Clackamas in 2012 is likely to give people in both parties some sleepless nights.

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