A Ho-Hum Election with Interesting Implications

GOP Senate nominee Monica Wehby will try to prove a political moderate can win statewide office in Oregon again.In an election overshadowed by a court ruling outlawing same-sex marriage discrimination, only three out of 10 Oregonians bothered to fill out and send in ballots. For Democrats, it was a ho-hum primary, but for Republicans, it was a battle for what some called "the soul of the GOP."

Little unexpected occurred at the state level, but there were some dramatic and interesting decisions at the local level. Clackamas County voters retained two commissioners facing a challenge, Multnomah County voters overwhelmingly elected a new chair and commissioner. Washington County voters returned three incumbent commissioners, including two who faced vigorous challengers from the political left.

Beaverton voters approved the state's largest school bond in history and Columbia County voters appear to have approved, on a second try, a levy to keep open their jail. Portland voters rejected a measure to create a separate sewer and water district.

Voters in Jackson and Josephine counties disregarded well-funded campaign messages and approved measures to disallow genetically modified crops. A cloud hangs over the Josephine County vote because of legislation approved in a special session last year that prohibits local GMO measures. Jackson County was exempted because its local measure preceded the legislation.

So beyond the election results, what does the balloting mean?

1. Oregon Republicans will get a chance to see whether a moderate can win a statewide election.

Monica Wehby easily dispatched Jason Conger and other minor players to win the GOP nomination to challenge incumbent Senator Jeff Merkley this fall. Despite being pummeled by election eve revelations about messy break-ups with an ex-hurband and ex-boyfriend, Wehby projected an image of a moderate based on her stands on abortion and gay marriage. Now she is test drive her overall views on a broader statewide electorate that hasn't been kind to GOP candidates. Her main pitch in the primary was to replace Obamacare, but that won't be enough to woo independents and discontented Democrats in the urban corridor between Portland and Eugene.

2. Dennis Richardson can take his shot at John Kitzhaber based on Cover Oregon's continuing woes.

Few Oregon voters know anything about GOP gubernatorial nominee Dennis Richardson. That can be a huge disadvantage, but in this year's election it is a chance for Richardson to make the campaign about Kitzhaber's role — or non-role — in the Cover Oregon fiasco. It would be a campaign based on a theme of "anyone would be better than him." That thematic could leverage a strain of Kitzhaber failure revealed in a recent statewide poll. However, Kitzhaber is no political wallflower. He has plenty of ammunition in touting his own three-term record and in exposing some of the less appealing parts of Richardson's legislative legacy.

3. There is a Tea Party in Oregon, but maybe not much of one.

It may not be a big party, but it was big enough to topple incumbent Rep. Jim Thompson, R-Dallas, in Tuesday's primary. He lost to an opponent who challenged him from the political right. Meanwhile, Rep. Vic Gilliam, R-Silverton, survived a primary challenge from an avowed conservative. Conger's support from more conservative elements of the GOP failed to catapult him to the party's U.S. Senate nomination. Conservatives also failed to turn out incumbent Clackamas County commissioners, including Paul Savas, who once was the darling of conservatives, but fell out of their favor.

4. Don't look for big changes in the Oregon legislature, just a few new faces.

There seems little danger Democrats will lose control of the Oregon House and Senate in 2015, at least based on primary election results. Of the 17 Senate seats up for grabs, six were effectively decided in the primary and captured by incumbents. As many as 27 House seats may have been decided in the primary, including six new faces running for open seats in heavily Democratic or Republican districts. There will be a handful of interesting races in the fall — for example, Senator Betsy Close, R-Albany, defending her seat against Rep. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, but for the most part the general election could be a boring repeat of the primary. Overall, there could be as many as 18 new lawmakers who are sworn in next January.

5. Turnout could be an issue in the fall.

One of the biggest factors in the election wasn't on the ballot — and apparently won't be in the fall — approving same-sex marriage in Oregon. The federal court ruling overturning Oregon's constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, which can't be challenged by anyone or any group with legal standing, means there is no need for a ballot measure this fall. Democratic operatives were counting on that measure to stir interest among Democrats and independents so they would turn out and vote. Republicans will be counting on a fall-off in Democratic votes to give them a better chance to upset Merkley and Kitzhaber.