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Issues muted in Oregon's quiet election

MyView: Economic storm buffets usually fervent local voters


The economy has won. The Great Recession has squeezed the revolutionary fervor out of candidates and parties in Oregon.

The rather sleepy statewide races show the trend. Oregon’s electorate will cast its votes for slightly different plans to put people back to work, protect mortgage holders and bring more business investment to the state.

In 2008, Oregon was part of an excited trend toward the Hope and Change of President Obama. But the early days of the recession diverted the new president’s attention to Triage and Salvage.

In 2010, the Tea Party brought excitement to many parts of the country with its message against big government. But the West Coast missed that movement. Here, very few Tea Party candidates survived the primaries.

Here we are in 2012. Presidential campaigns are missing in action on the West Coast, so that quadrennial source of enthusiasm and ideas is not contributing to local elections. Because of the scheduling of statewide candidate elections, we have no U.S. Senate race, nor is the governor’s office being contested. Those are the two races guaranteed to get voters engaged in the process.

Republicans did not even field primary candidates for attorney general and treasurer, so those races were decided in May. The Republican write-in candidates will garner votes in the general election, but they are not mounting campaigns that reach a broad section of Oregonians.

Turnout is crucial

Oregon’s secretary of state race has been remarkably low-key. For those of us in the Portland area, the race did not even appear on the radar until about the time ballots were mailed out.

The conventional wisdom that Republican candidates need to make a significant showing in Multnomah County and win Washington County to win a statewide office might happen in this race, but not because of any aggressive campaigning by Republican Knute Buehler. Incumbent Democrat Kate Brown could lose, but she has not gone out of her way to appeal to the traditional Democratic strongholds in the tri-county area.

The same low-key campaign defines the nonpartisan race for state commissioner of labor. And this office seems to have a direct bearing on all sorts of economic issues in the state.

We do face crucial races for the Legislature. But even there, a kind of quietness reigns. There appear to be about nine House districts, most in the Portland area, that could determine party control of the 2013 House. But without strong statewide races to galvanize turnout and help to define issues, those contests seem to be occurring in an electoral vacuum.

Turnout is crucial to all these races, but with no strong presidential contest nor exciting statewide races, the pressure is on the local campaigns. Turnout will be because of the hard work done by the individual candidates for the state Legislature.

Voters have been consistent during the past four years in their concerns: the economy, the economy, the economy. This emphasis swept Barack Obama to the presidency in 2008, and swept Oregon’s Republican U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith out in the same election. In 2010, Republicans gained Oregon House seats because of voter dissatisfaction with the Democratic solutions to the Great Recession.

Maybe 2012 is so quiet in Oregon because both parties have had a chance and neither has answered the voters’ concerns: How can voters feel more secure about their economic future?

There may be a political solution out there, but this muted election campaign does not seem to be able to convince Oregon voters that change is around the corner.

Jim Moore teaches political science at Pacific University, where he is the director of the Tom McCall Center for Policy Innovation. He has been an active observer of Oregon politics for more than 20 years.