Oregon's Mailed In Gubernatorial Race

Oregon pioneered mail-in balloting and now may be spearheading a new innovation – the mailed in gubernatorial campaign.

Oregon pioneered mail-in balloting and now may be spearheading a new innovation – the mailed in gubernatorial campaign.

The 2016 presidential race is a tornado of tweets, debates and name-calling. Meanwhile, the 2016 Oregon gubernatorial race is more like a still wind with few Facebook posts and a couple of press releases. Oregon has led the nation in mail-in voting. Now we may be leading it with mailed in campaigning.

Democratic Governor Kate Brown seems to have her foot on the pause button. Republican challenger Bud Pierce is running a campaign that resembles an earnest, sleepy Sunday morning political talk show. Allen Alley, who has run for governor before and entered the race late this go-round, appears to be resting on his name familiarity and party ties to win the GOP nomination.

For Oregon voters looking for a roll-up-your-sleeves discussion of policy, there is mostly silence. For voters rooting for a raucous, bare-knuckles campaign, there is just an empty prize-fighting ring. The political combatants are evidently occupied elsewhere.

Chances are the fireworks will come. There is partisan animosity about a Democratically-backed minimum wage boost, a requirement for paid sick leave and a utility-negotiated deal to end coal power in Oregon. Partisans on both sides of the political aisle may be annoyed by the lack of a vigorous exchange on policy or politics by the candidates.

It’s almost as if Oregon politicians are withdrawing in the face of a tumultuous and coarse political primary battle, as Donald Trump and Ted Cruz wage war in the gutter, and while Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders spar over her Wall Street speeches and the realism of his policy proposals.

This year shaped up as a show-stopper election in Oregon with just about everyone except Senator Jeff Merkley appearing on the ballot. But the promise of a blockbuster ballot has shriveled into a deflated balloon as serious races failed to materialize and the races that exist have resembled junior high school dances with the girls hugging one wall and the boys the other. 

The gubernatorial race so far has been a non-starter. Brown, who took over for Governor John Kitzhaber amid an influence-peddling scandal, got high marks for a strong start. She demonstrated leadership and wielded her friendly personality to good stead. But since then, Brown has grown more cautious, even as the Democratic-led legislature punched through liberal legislative measures in the short 2016 session.

While Brown’s reticence could be explained as politically expedient, it is harder to understand the political logic of Pierce and Alley. Challengers have to lay siege to an incumbent, creating voter willingness to consider an alternative. The best blow Pierce has landed is that things aren’t quite up to snuff in Salem. Alley has basically said we can do better than what we’ve got. It usually takes more than that to unseat an incumbent, even one running for the job for the first time.

Oregon has become a reliable blue state, making a statewide election victory for a Republican a dubious prospect any time. Prospects in 2016 could be even dimmer if Donald Trump is the party’s national standard-bearer, forcing down ballot candidates to spend time disavowing his statements and stands. Neither Pierce nor Alley seem on the same wave length as Trump or his closest rival, Ted Cruz. Maybe they figure the less said, the better.

The closest to political excitement so far in Oregon was a Bernie Sanders rally last week, which was timed to boost his support in the Washington state Democratic presidential caucus. Sanders also filled the Portland TV airwaves with his commercials.

The Oregon primary is now only a few weeks away, so you expect the political pace here to pick up with a gubernatorial debate or a major policy speech or something. Maybe the candidates were waiting for spring break to end to launch their real campaigns. Or maybe they are on an extended spring beak themselves.

Portlanders have seen a respectful contest to replace Charlie Hales as mayor. The candidates have talked about policy differences, which are tiny, and the two frontrunners insisted that other candidates be included in mayoral forums. All very polite, very Portland, very much material for the next season of Portlandia. 

Gary Conkling is president and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at  garyc@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at@GaryConkling.