Will new party reshape Oregon politics

published by the Hillsboro Tribune
Aug 27, 2015
by Editorial Board
 

Voter confusion may have helped the Independent Party of Oregon get where it is today, but going forward, a muddled message will not serve the party well if it is to become a legitimate force in Oregon politics.

As expected, the Oregon secretary of state’s office has determined that the Independent Party had registered enough voters — nearly 110,000 — to qualify alongside the Democratic and Republican parties as a major party in Oregon. That status gives it advantages not provided to minor parties such as the Greens and Libertarians.

Among other things, the state now must fund the Independent Party’s primaries, which means the Independents potentially could field candidates in all sorts of partisan races — from the Legislature to the governor’s office.

This could be an historic opportunity to reshape politics in Oregon, or it could be a one-election wonder. That all will depend on how the Independent Party defines itself and on the credibility of the candidates its members nominate for office in 2016. Another major question involves the Independent Party’s promise to open its primary to all nonaffiliated voters. If the details can be worked out, this move would introduce hundreds of thousands of Oregonians to the party’s candidates in the May 2016 primary election.

Since its formation in 2007, the party, known as the IPO, has accumulated new voter registrations at an astonishing pace. The party has been assertive in seeking voters, but it also got an assist from people who thought they were registering as nonaffiliated voters, and didn’t realize the “Independent” label made them members of an actual party.

However, there’s little doubt that, regardless of their level of awareness, voters have been looking for an alternative to the two dominant parties. People value independence in their leaders, and as such, the Independent Party’s greatest asset right now is the image its name conjures for the public. But as John Horvick of DHM Research in Portland points out, that image — still vague and undefined — must get a lot sharper for the IPO to have lasting influence.

People generally know what the Democratic and Republican labels imply. They also have a fairly firm understanding of what it means to be Green, Libertarian or Socialist. The IPO’s mission statement includes general assertions about reducing the influence of special interests, increasing government openness and protecting consumers. But no one really knows what that means when it comes time to vote on a school-funding bill or a transportation package.

Despite the challenges ahead for the IPO, former Secretary of State Phil Keisling is correct when he says the new party’s arrival “significantly shakes up” the dynamics of future legislative races. If the IPO attracts well-known candidates who aren’t on the loony fringes and are capable of raising campaign money, it will pose real trouble for Democrats and Republicans.

Depending on the legislative district or office in question, a viable and moderate Independent Party candidate could disrupt the voter balance, making some races competitive when they were not competitive before. This may not be what the party’s founders have in mind, but candidates — not party leaders — are the people who establish a brand in the public’s mind.

Here’s just one potential example: State Sen. Betsy Johnson (D-Scappoose) — whose district includes Banks as well as the outskirts of Forest Grove and North Plains — is on a tour of Oregon. Is it possible the famously independent and quite articulate Johnson is contemplating a run for governor as a member of the new major party?

Those will be entertaining questions to ask, but the Independent Party needs a number of Betsy Johnsons to file for office under its label if it is to become a legitimate alternative. Being called independent is inherently attractive, but even Independents will have to stand for something.