You have to give the leaders of the Independent Party of Oregon credit for being clever.
For starters, they long ago chose a name destined to swell their organization's ranks. People wanting to declare their independence from political parties, but unaware that the way to do that in Oregon is by signing up as a "non-affiliated voter," have registered instead for the Independent Party.
That savvy move is likely partly responsible for the party's registration inching past 5 percent of the electorate in 2015, thereby establishing the IPO as a "major party" in Oregon for 2016. Although registration dropped below 5 percent this year, lawmakers agreed to let the IPO remain a major party for the 2018 election cycle, because of the impact Oregon's landmark "Motor Voter" automatic voter registration had on the IPO. Those who are registered automatically without choosing a party are categorized as "non-affiliated" voters, which effectively shrinks the IPO's percentage of the electorate.
The "major party" designation is more than just a prestigious label. As reported by the Portland Tribune's Paris Achen, a little-noticed 2017 campaign finance law seems to have inadvertently guaranteed that all "major party" candidates be invited to any televised gubernatorial debate. That's not what lawmakers intended, but the IPO now is demanding its nominee, Patrick Starnes, be allowed to join Democratic Gov. Kate Brown and her Republican rival Knute Buehler in any televised debate this fall.
We don't blame the IPO for using this unexpected bit of leverage. After all, the political deck in Oregon is stacked heavily in favor of the Democratic and Republican parties.
For starters, the state picks up the major parties' cost of the primary elections, which are, in effect, party functions closed to voters who aren't registered to that party.
Meanwhile, in covering partisan races, those of us in the media tend to focus only on candidates with a "D" or "R" after their names, ignoring the IPO candidates as well as the minor party hopefuls, from the Libertarians and Pacific Greens to those running under the Constitution, Progressive or Working Families labels.
We have on many occasions used this space to lament the partisan polarization in Oregon. Adding voices untethered to the Republican and Democratic playbooks could add to the quality of political discourse. That certainly was the case in 2016, when former lawmaker Chris Telfer ran for state treasurer with the IPO's nomination.
Telfer, a CPA from Bend, held her own at public forums with Republican Jeff Gudman and the eventual winner, Democrat Tobias Reed. She garnered important endorsements and picked up almost 10 percent of the vote in November.
So, on the one hand, we cheer the IPO's insistence that its candidate deserves his moment in the spotlight, too.
Our concern, however, is that the IPO is a party in name only.
This year, it didn't recruit a single IPO candidate to run for any of the 15 state Senate contests, and the fall ballot will list just five IPO candidates in the 60 state House races.
And then there's the issue of the candidate who tops the IPO ticket this year.
Starnes is no Telfer.
The only office the Bend cabinetmaker has held is a local school board seat. And two months after getting the gubernatorial nomination, the "issues" page on his website lists vague platitudes on just three topics, including just 58 words on his pet cause: campaign finance reform.
At an appearance before the Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association last Friday, Starnes conceded he is a single-issue candidate.
Starnes argues that until Oregon eliminates the influence of big money in elections, special-interest groups will thwart any effort to make meaningful change on other issues.
There's a long tradition of nonpartisan or minor-party candidates using an election to advocate for a single cause. They sometimes achieve their aim of focusing attention on their issue, but no one considers them as serious applicants for the job they are seeking.
Major parties, by contrast, are expected to put up a slate of candidates who can offer voters their views on all key issues at play.
Are some of them ill-prepared? Sure. Are some of them doomed to defeat? Absolutely. But they all represent an organization that has put in the time and effort to recruit candidates and put forward positions to give voters a choice.
So, if Starnes does force his way into the debate by using a poorly worded law, it will be a pivotal moment not only for him, but his party. He will have the attention that the Independent Party of Oregon has said it deserves. It will be up to him to prove them right, and establish the IPO as a "major" political force in fact, rather than in name only.
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