Vic Atiyeh

What if Oregon Voted First

The 2016 presidential sweepstakes may have a very different complexion – and different winners – if voting started in Oregon rather than Iowa.

The 2016 presidential sweepstakes may have a very different complexion – and different winners – if voting started in Oregon rather than Iowa.

Oregonian columnist David Sarasohn wondered aloud over the weekend how the presidential sweepstakes would differ if the first voter test was in Oregon instead of Iowa. It is a fascinating question. And it is not ridiculous to believe Oregon should have the honor of voting first since the state invented the idea of presidential preference voting in 1910. 

If the first test of presidential timber was in Oregon, chances are good early momentum in the race would go to candidates known for being more practical and less ideological, even if the ultimate party nominee would be unchanged.

For example, in the contested 1964 GOP primary, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller captured Oregon, defeating eventual nominee Barry Goldwater. In 1968, Robert Kennedy picked up momentum in Oregon, even though he lost to Eugene McCarthy, that vaulted him to victory in the California primary. Kennedy may have gone on to win the Democratic nomination, and perhaps defeated Richard Nixon, if not for his election-night assassination in Los Angeles.

In the past three Iowa caucuses, Hawkeye state Republicans have given the edge to Mike Huckabee (2008), Rick Santorum (2012) and Ted Cruz (2016). All three were the favorite of Christian evangelicals. In a relative unchurched state such as Oregon, Sarasohn speculates none of the three might have gained as much political traction as they did in Iowa. Neither Huckabee nor Santorum rode their Iowa caucus victories to much further electoral success and Cruz is already facing strong headwinds in New Hampshire, where Republicans view themselves more as a constituency than a congregation.

The Republican tradition in Oregon has centered on conservative pragmatism. Vic Atiyeh, the last GOP governor in Oregon, tried to make state government more efficient, not make it smaller. Republican lawmakers in Oregon today battle against many tax increases and additional regulations, but they generally avoid fighting culture wars over contentious social issues. They fiercely defend gun rights but rarely talk about their personal religious views.

Ohio Governor John Kasich and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush are perhaps the best matches in the 2016 GOP presidential field for Oregon’s Republican constituency. Kasich was an also-ran in Iowa, but appears to be gaining some momentum in New Hampshire, which like Oregon puts some value on experience and pragmatism. Bush, who has conducted a clumsy campaign, is lagging in the polls, but you could imagine he might have gotten off to a stronger start if the first vote occurred in Oregon rather than Iowa.

Cruz, the Iowa winner, had trouble with ethanol subsidies, a big deal for corn farmers. You can imagine the difficulty he would have had in Oregon coming to terms with voter-approved recreational marijuana and a burgeoning business sector to supply it.

Republican candidates also would have been tested this year by the occupation of the Malheur Federal Wildlife Refuge. They would have been unable to dodge questions about the illegal confiscation of federal property and simmering grazing rights issues.

In recent times, both the Republican and Democratic nominees have been coronated by the time the Oregon primary arrives in May. That may not be the case this year. Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton is facing an unexpectedly vigorous challenge from Bernie Sanders that could go all the way until this summer’s Democratic convention. If Oregon had voted first, Sanders may have carried away the victory, giving his looming landslide in New Hampshire tomorrow even greater weight.

As Oregon has become a more reliably blue state in presidential and statewide electoral voting, Oregon also has become more liberal on issues such as physician-assisted suicide, an issue that just popped up in New Hampshire. With virtually no military presence in Oregon and relatively few defense contractors, voting against going to war is a bipartisan pattern, from Senators Wayne Morse and Mark Hatfield to Oregon’s current Democratic congressional delegation. Rand Paul – who was the most dovish GOP presidential candidate until he ended his campaign over the weekend – might have found a more welcoming audience for his foreign policy views.

Oregon is one of the most trade-dependent states in the union and almost all of its congressional delegation supports free-trade agreements, which could have made it awkward for Clinton and Sanders to oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement negotiated by the Obama administration, at least without some stiff questioning.

Oregon Democrats and Republicans have a record of nominating and electing women to high office, which Iowa only recently embraced with the election of Joni Ernst to the U.S. Senate. Clinton might have found an edge in soliciting the active support of Governor Kate Brown, Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum, former House Majority Leader Val Hoyle and candidate for secretary of state and current House Speaker Tina Kotek, all of whom will be in the 2016 ballot, too.

The Republican candidate who earned the endorsement of Congressman Greg Walden, who represents Oregon east of the Cascade Range – and who contracted for the best helicopter service – may have had the clear advantage. Walden was a close ally of former Speaker John Boehner who was forced out by conservative Tea Party House members.

Caucus winners in Iowa generally are the candidates with the best ground game and who press the flesh. Cruz appeared in every Iowa county. So did Barack Obama in his startling political arrival in 2008. Oregon is bigger and its rural, red-leaning voters are harder to canvass. However, Democratic candidates can campaign pretty much along I-5 from Portland to Eugene, giving them a logistical edge, but not anything requiring the same kind of retail politics that Iowans demand.

Iowa Democrats are found largely in cities with universities and industry with organized labor. Iowans may not be as hip as Portlanders view themselves, but they aren't mugwumps, either. They produced a virtual dead-heat between Clinton and Sanders.

It does make you wonder what the outcome would have been if Hillary and Bernie had to impress Oregon Democrats first. It does make you wonder whether Republicans Lindsey Graham or Rand Paul would have dropped out before or after the Oregon primary.

What if…

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 and you can follow him on Twitter at@GaryConkling.

The Passing of an Oregon Hero

The passing of former Oregon Governor Victor Atiyeh earlier this week has prompted an outpouring of positive comments about the last Republican governor in Oregon, both for his accomplishments as well as for the positive way he conducted himself while he held the state's top political job.

Memories abound for me because I had the privilege of serving in the Atiyeh Administration and did a stint as the Governor's press secretary. 

Senator Peter Courtney captured the man well in his tribute:  "Governor Vic Atiyeh was a kind and gentle man. He had a great smile and a great way of dealing with people. He was the ultimate public servant in the truest sense of the word. There was no greater role model.  He led our state during the most difficult of times. He found a way to make things work when everything was going against us. He brought out the best in people by appealing to the best in each and every person. He never focused on the negative. Oregon is saying goodbye to one of its greatest statesmen and one of its most remarkable citizens."

Here is a quick collection of my own memories:

Coming back to Oregon:  After working in Washington, D.C., for Democratic Congressman Les AuCoin, I returned to Oregon and joined the Republican Atiyeh administration.  Like AuCoin before him, Victor — as we sometimes called the Governor — never asked me or any other staff member about political affiliation.  The only question was whether I could do the job. (AuCoin didn't ask about my political affiliation, either, in what was in the 1980s a far different political moment.)

The governor's favorite sayings:  His staff heard certain phrases repeatedly, so much so that they stick in my mind today, 30 years later. He liked to say, "Well, that's just part of the great pageant of life."  Or:  "There never are any problems — just opportunities." Or, as The Oregonian paraphrased this week, "You can do a lot if you don't care who gets the credit." 

Canny Tax Policy Works for Oregon

There is nothing new or novel about Oregon using tax policy to lure or retain major manufacturers, as Governor Kitzhaber has proposed to clear the path for a major Nike expansion.

Oregon has maintained its stake in the competitive manufacturing sector over the last two decades by a canny approach to tax policy.

Governor Kitzhaber’s proposal this week to create a tax policy guarantee for large manufacturers such as Nike is the latest in a line of proposals dating back to 1984 when Oregon lawmakers repealed the state’s worldwide unitary tax.

The circumstances through the years have been the same — state leaders needed effective ideas Oregon could afford to attract or retain major employers. Clever tax policy did the trick.

The 1984 repeal of the unitary tax occurred during an economic downturn and threats by Japanese and other foreign companies to black list Oregon. Repeal of the unitary tax wound up causing only a scant tax revenue drop, but rolled out a red carpet to companies such as NEC and Epson that responded by quickly building manufacturing plants in Oregon.

In the early 2000s, manufacturers complained that Oregon’s tax apportionment formula penalized them for having large physical footprints and lots of employees. The 3-factor formula weighed property value, employees and in-state sales equally to determine their tax liability.

Lawmakers recognized the tax disincentive for companies such as Intel and Precision Castparts to keep investing here and adding jobs. They modified the apportionment formula to give double-weight to in-state sales.

Under continuing pressure from the manufacturing sector, and competition for their jobs by other states, Oregon lawmakers agreed to phase out the 3-factor formula and replace it with an apportionment scheme that just considered in-state sales.

That change eliminated the penalty manufacturers felt when they expanded their operations and hired more workers. It undoubtedly reduced state corporate tax bills, but the addition of more, often higher-paid workers increased personal income tax collections. On balance, the state achieved a net positive economic benefit.

Local communities also benefitted from higher industrial property valuations that helped pay for schools and firehouses, while demanding relatively few public services. New workers bought or built homes and shopped in local stores.

Kitzhaber’s latest idea basically enshrines the latest good idea for manufacturers who promise to make sizable investments and create jobs. It doesn’t cost anything, but it will reap dividends by once again helping Oregon stand apart from the crowd — California, Arizona and Colorado and cities such as Austin and Raleigh-Durham.

Some may question Kitzhaber’s haste in summoning lawmakers to pass tax legislation undeniably intended to entice Nike to stay and expand. But it’s no different than Governor Vic Atiyeh who summoned a small group including us 20 years ago to count votes on repeal of the unitary tax. Oregon’s sizable, productive and diverse manufacturing sector is the evidence of a smart, cost-effective strategy that still works.

[Pat McCormick represented the Oregon electronics industry and Gary Conking worked at Tektronix in 1984 and lobbied for repeal of the unitary tax. They later collaborated to found a Portland-based public affairs firm.]

Oregon's Last Republican Governor

A piece in the Salem Statesman-Journal brought back a lot of memories for me.

In a column entitled "Atiyeh Laid Foundation for Oregon Economic Diversity," state government reporter Peter Wong recalled the last Republican governor of the state, Vic Atiyeh, who is approaching his 89th birthday. He still goes to his office in Portland and often shows up for ceremonial events at the Capitol he loved where he served as a state senator and held the governor's office for eight years.

I had the privilege of working for the Atiyeh Administration from 1979 through 1987.

Here are excerpts from Wong's piece:

"He (Atiyeh) turns 89 on Monday – and this month also marks 30 years since he took part in the longest special session of the Oregon legislature in state history. Officially, that session lasted 37 days, ending on March 1. But lawmakers took a weeklong break in the middle of the session after they found that the gap between tax collections and state spending was $100 million more than had been projected.

"The unlikely combination of a Republican governor and Democratic legislative majorities — with some Republican support — cut spending and raised taxes to balance the budget. They started the two-year cycle in mid-1981 with a spending plan for $3.2 billion — the Oregon Lottery did not exist then — and ended it with $2.9 billion, even after the tax increases. The unspent balance in the tax-supported general fund was around $3 million.