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Open primaries a non-starter for Oregon Republicans

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March 6, 2012

By Maresa Strano


SALEM, Oregon: The poor turnout this year of Republican candidates for state executive offices in Oregon will no doubt strengthen the party's resolve to improve its ever-weakening statewide election record. That resolve was first expressed at the outset of the 2012 election season with the decision to open their primaries to the state's 420,000+ unaffiliated voters. Both major parties in Oregon have experimented with open primaries in the past, but the results did not prove significant enough to compel any permanent changes.[1] The struggling Oregon GOP is now ready to revisit the old experiment; the party has selected three of its statewide primary races—attorney general, secretary of state and treasurer—to open in the upcoming primary election.

Oregon Republicans last attempted such an opening in 1992, after which they retreated to their standard principle that candidate nomination is an exclusive privilege of the party's members. Since then, the only Republicans to have held statewide office were ex-Treasurer Tony Meeker and ex-Attorney General Charles Crookham, both of whom left office in 1993.[2] The condition looks particularly dire from the Governor's Mansion, which no Republican has called home in over 30 years.[3]

The state's heavily-Democratic electorate, especially within influential cities like Portland and Eugene, easily overwhelms the determination of the 32 percent of voters registered as Republican and the 6 percent affiliated with third parties.[3] Coupled with the GOP's increasingly lamentable record of success, especially in statewide races, party leaders estimated they could not afford to continue operating on this exclusive basis.

Non-affiliated voters represent a whopping 21 percent of the state's total voting population, and their votes ultimately decide who wins and loses elections in Oregon. Opening the Republican primaries is a move designed to endear this large contingent of outcome-swayers to the GOP at the primary stage, in case the opportunity to invest in its candidates early on may translate to victories down the line. Of these non-affiliated voters (or NAVs), Oregon's Republican Chariman Allen Alley said in a press release, "The Oregon GOP is sending them a message: we want you."[1]

Trent Lutz, Executive Director of Oregon's Democratic Party, weighed in on the decision by informing voters that the Democratic party would not be following the GOP's example in the 2012 primary elections, and expressed his skepticism that allowing NAVs to participate in the Republican party "would fool them into becoming more beholden" to GOP candidates.[1] Democrats last attempted this process in 2000, and abandoned the idea due to an overly cumbersome mailing process.

Unfortunately, due to limited application and a dearth of Republican candidates, the "freedom primary," as party leaders have dubbed it, will not have the chance this round to demonstrate its efficacy. Between the three Republican primary races picked to be open in 2012, none are contested and there is only one Republican candidate: orthopedic surgeon Knute Buehler, who is running for secretary of state.[4]

There is speculation the reform could expand to include gubernatorial and congressional primary contests in the next midterm elections, by which time, Republicans hope, they will field enough contenders to be able to evaluate the impact of the modified system. Oregon's most familiar contested Republican primary, that which nominates the party's presidential candidate, is outside this hypothetical scope of application; the national GOP rulebook strictly prohibits opening this primary.

Current Oregon Secretary of State Kate Brown (D), who is expected to face Buehler in the general election, commended the Republican's decision, but admitted that it presents a logistical challenge for her office, which is responsible for overseeing elections. In a statement made last month, Brown said that she was consulting with county clerks on a plan to get the ballots to Oregon's NAVs by the primary on May 15.[1]

Whatever the results of that planning, presently, without a viable test-subject among the three relevant races, they appear to have been in vain.

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