Open primaries a non-starter for Oregon Republicans

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March 6, 2012

By Maresa Strano


SALEM, Oregon: The poor Republican turnout at Oregon's primary candidate filing deadline for state executive officials will no doubt strengthen the party's resolve to combat its ever-fading Beaver state election record. That resolve was first expressed at the outset of the 2012 election season with the decision to revisit an old experiment, toyed with by both major parties in the past, where both parties open their primaries to the state's 420,000+ unaffiliated voters.[1] Oregon's GOP chose three of its statewide primary races, attorney general, secretary of state, and treasurer to open in the upcoming election.

The Oregon GOP's last attempt at such an opening occurred in 1990 and 1992, after which the party retreated to its standard position: the privilege of nominating a party candidate belongs to members of that party. Since then, the only Republicans to have held statewide office are Treasurer Tony Meeker and Attorney General Charles Crookham, both of whom left office in 1993.[2] The condition looks most severe from the Governor's mansion, which no Republican has called home in over 30 years.[3]

The state's Democratic electorate, especially within influential cities like Portland and Eugene, easily overwhelms the determination of the Republicans and the 6 percent of voters affiliated with third parties.[3] With just 32 percent of Oregonians registered Republicans, coupled with the party's increasingly lamentable stats, the realization was reached that the party could not afford to persist on this exclusive basis.

Unaffiliated 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 contingent of election-swaying voters to the GOP candidates at the primary stage, thereby allowing the early investment translate to victories later. 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 upcoming primary elections, and added 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, the "freedom primary," as the Republican's have dubbed it, will not get the opportunity this round to demonstrate its efficacy due to limited application and a dearth of Republican candidates. Between the three Republican primary races chosen to be opened, none are contested, and there is only one Republican candidate - orthopedic surgeon Knute Buehler, who is running for secretary of state.[4]

This reform could expand to include gubernatorial and congressional primary contests as well, by which time there will be more Republican contenders to test the concept's impact- or at least that is the party's hope. Oregon's most familiar contested Republican primary, the GOP presidential primary, is outside this hypothetical scope of application. The national GOP rulebook strictly prohibits opening this primary.

Current Democratic secretary of state Kate Brown, who will likely face Buehler in the general election, commended the Republican's decision, but admitted that it presents a logistical challenge for her office which oversees 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, without a contested Republican primary among the three relevant races, they appear for now to have been in vain.

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