Oregon is officially a three-party state and questions abound whether the Independent Party of Oregon will alter the state's increasingly blue-state electoral performance. The first test could be a candidate running for state treasurer.
The Independent Party of Oregon achieved recognized party status August 17 after nailing down almost 110,000 registered voters. Recognition means the Independent Party will have its own primary election, paid for by the state, just like the Democratic and Republican parties.
The newly recognized party has benefitted by a name that many people associate with non-affiliation with the two major parties. People who registered as Independents may think less of it as a party than as a way to vote in the primary without being either a Democrat or Republican.
The absence of what the party itself stands for makes it hard to predict the party's impact on the 2016 elections, which will see almost every statewide office up for grabs, as well as a bucket load of ballot measures. Independent-minded voters have become a critical part of the Oregon electorate, often capable of swinging an election. But can the Independent Party nominate candidates that can win elections?
Former Oregon legislator Chris Telfer wants to find out as she has filed as an Independent to run for state treasurer, while, a position that will be open because Ted Wheeler is term-limited from seeking re-election. Telfer, who was elected to the Oregon Senate from Bend as a Republican, but defeated in a primary in 2012. A CPA, she ran unsuccessfully for state treasurer as a Republican in 2010.
The most prominent "independent" in Oregon these days may be Senator Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose. A Pamplin Media Group editorial last week speculated Johnson may be exploring a run for governor under the Independent Party banner. The editorial noted Johnson, who has toyed with a gubernatorial run before, is on tour through Oregon. It could be a political scouting mission or just a summer road trip.
A potential Johnson candidacy underscores the challenge facing the new party. While Johnson herself is well known as a long-time legislator, her platform as an Independent Party candidate for governor would have to be carved out of new stone. Okay, she's independent, but what does that mean for health care reform, funding for K-12 schools, transportation investment and income inequality? Democratic and Republican candidates would have a leg up on those issues because their political parties and their core constituencies line up behind fairly well defined positions.
Former Secretary of State Phil Keisling noted that initially the Independent Party impact may be greatest at the legislative level, where a few hundred votes in a swing district could make a difference. It also is a more fertile opportunity for an Independent Party candidate with local name familiarity to win a House or Senate seat.
Non-affiliated candidates have won before. In 1974 Charles Hanlon, who ran as an independent, defeated incumbent Senator Bill Holmstrom, even though he was Senate majority leader and co-chairman of the Joint Ways and Means Committee. Holmstrom was mired in a scandal and Hanlon emerged as a credible alternative in a coastal Senate district that no Republican at that time would have had a chance to win.
Another trend that could come into play is a relatively new option that allows a candidate to bear the nomination of more than one political party. Under fusion voting, a candidate can be the Democratic nominee, as well as the Green Party nominee, with both affiliations appearing on the ballot. This has given smaller parties a chance to have an influence on candidates with a chance to win, other than just being an election spoiler to split the votes. Until the Independent Party develops its own brand, this could be its more powerful weapon to gain at least a share of credit for a candidate victory.
As the Pamplin Media Group editorial says, "Being called independent is inherently attractive, but even Independents will have to stand for something."