Four weeks ago, Oregon voters rejected a ballot measure that would have raised the state’s income taxes for three years to pay for schools, social programs and other vital services.
The fallout has been swift and dramatic. New Democratic Gov. Ted Kulongoski and a Legislature that is split between Republicans and Democrats are now forced to make deep and painful cuts to the state budget — or contemplate revenue-producing solutions like slot machines or heavy borrowing.
“It’s pretty somber in the [state] Capitol right now,” said Steve Lanning, political director for the Oregon AFL-CIO.
But the political consequences of the ballot measure’s defeat are harder to calculate at this early stage. While many Oregon GOP leaders supported the measure, some Republicans believe the voters’ 54 percent to 46 percent verdict against tax increases was an affirmation of the party’s anti-tax views.
“That energized the Republican message,” said Amy Casterline, executive director of the Oregon Republican Party.
What’s more, Republicans said, any voter ire over programs slashed will be directed at Kulongoski.
“There’s more risks for Democrats given that there’s a governor who’s a Democrat,” said Bob Moore, a national GOP strategist based in Portland.
But Lanning predicted Republicans will bear the brunt of criticisms over budget cuts because of their reputation as fiscal conservatives. What’s more, he said, Oregonians have traditionally been resistant to tax hikes, “so the fact that it lost by 8 points — it was not a bad spread. We feel good about that.”
Del Ali, president of Research 2000, a national independent polling firm that has frequently conducted surveys in Oregon, said there isn’t a lot to read politically into the special election results because Oregonians were being like voters everywhere — demanding quality services without being willing to pay.
Nevertheless, the tax vote is topic A in Oregon political circles these days, overshadowing every other issue at the start of the 2004 election cycle. The ’04 ballot in Oregon will feature a U.S. Senate contest, elections for three statewide offices — attorney general, secretary of state and state treasurer.
As the two political parties look ahead to 2004 and beyond, there is good news — and bad — for both.
Once a stronghold of moderate Republicans like former Sens. Mark Hatfield and Bob Packwood, Oregon has trended Democratic in recent years. Democrats have won every presidential election there since 1988 and every gubernatorial election since 1986. Four of the state’s five House Members are Democrats. Democrats also hold all of the second-tier statewide offices, including those that are chosen on a nonpartisan basis.
But President Bush finished just 7,000 votes behind Al Gore in 2000. Republicans increased their hold on the state House of Representatives by three seats last year (the two parties share control of the state Senate, 15-15). Sen. Gordon Smith (R) won a 20-point re-election victory in 2002 over Secretary of State Bill Bradbury (D). The GOP gubernatorial nominee, former state Sen. Kevin Mannix, lost by just 2 percent to Kulongoski — and many political analysts believe that if the nominee hadn’t been a social conservative like Mannix, the GOP would have won.
A few weeks after the election, Smith and the state’s lone Republican House Member, Rep. Greg Walden, tried to install a new state party chairman. But Mannix outmaneuvered their choice and the longtime incumbent to seize control of the state party apparatus. Although he has not revealed his own plans, Mannix, a 53-year-old lawyer from Salem, is mentioned as a possible candidate for attorney general, Rep. Darlene Hooley’s (D) House seat, or Senate.
If Mannix doesn’t run for Senate — and it is unlikely that he will — it is hard to see the GOP fielding anyone competitive against Sen. Ron Wyden (D), who was first elected in a special election to replace Packwood in 1996.
“No one has really come forth gung-ho at this time,” Casterline conceded.
Republicans aren’t going to get a lot of help from Smith when it comes to recruiting a challenger to Wyden. The two have a unique working relationship for Senators from opposing parties. They have a private lunch together once a week, and they travel throughout the state holding joint town hall meetings. Wyden’s endorsement of Bradbury in last year’s Senate race was perfunctory at best.
If there is going to be a competitive statewide race next year, it may be for attorney general. The 63-year-old incumbent, Hardy Myers, thought he would be term-limited until a court struck down Oregon’s term-limits law. Myers has not yet said what he plans to do. One persistent rumor in Salem has him taking a judgeship soon.
Already a field of potential Republican candidates is emerging, including Mannix, state Rep. Lane Shutterly and former Portland School Board member Ron Saxton, who finished third in the close GOP gubernatorial primary last year.
On the Democratic side, Clatsop County District Attorney Joshua Marquis (D) is expected to run if Myers doesn’t.
The other two statewide officials up for re-election next year, Bradbury and state Treasurer Randall Edwards (D), are considered safe for now. Edwards, 41, is considered a possible future candidates for higher office.
The Congressional race that is the most likely to be competitive next year is for Hooley’s seat. Hooley has represented the swing district east of Portland since 1996, but her elections have always been close and her two predecessors were Republicans.
Joan Mooney, a spokeswoman for Hooley, said the Congresswoman has improved her hold on her seat, thanks in part to redistricting, which added some of the Portland metro area to the district. That hasn’t stopped several Republicans from pondering the race in 2004, including state Rep. Jeffrey Kropf, businessman Jim Zupancic, who spent $400,000 on a competitive but unsuccessful race for a state House seat , and two-time nominee Brian Boquist.
The state’s four other House incumbents appear safe if they run for re-election. Rep. David Wu’s (D) Portland-based district was considered a swing area when he was elected in 1998 with a 3-point margin, but Republicans have not put up a serious challenge since.
Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D) could abandon his seat in 2004 to run for mayor of Portland — a job he sought unsuccessfully once before — though he told The Oregonian newspaper earlier this month that he won’t make a decision on the mayoral race until this summer. Popular Portland Mayor Vera Katz has not yet said whether she’ll seek a fourth term next year, when she will be 71.
With so few top-flight political offices open, political wannabes can only wait and wonder. The list of Republican candidates-in-waiting includes House Majority Leader Tim Knopp and former state Labor and Industries Commissioner Jack Roberts, who finished second to Mannix in the gubernatorial primary.
The Democratic farm team, which is bigger, is led by Susan Castillo, the newly elected state superintendent of public instruction, who is 43. It also includes: state Sen. Ginny Burdick, 55, of Portland; David Bragdon, 43, president of the Metro Council, the regional government for the Portland area, whose brother is Kulongoski’s chief of staff; Senate Democratic leader Kate Brown, 42; state Rep. Deborah Kafoury, 35, of Portland; Josh Kardon, 44, Wyden’s chief of staff; Multnomah County Commission Chairwoman Diane Linn, 44; and Portland City Commissioner Erik Sten, 35, who was once described by the Willamette Week newspaper as “the Luke Skywalker of Portland’s progressive political forces.”