Lessons from the Primary: Diverging Parties or Incumbents Behaving Badly?

by Brendan Monaghan

With the presidential contests of both parties no longer in doubt, many of the headlines this Primary Season have instead been devoted to down-ballot races. Specifically, moderate incumbents and candidates in open races are being tossed out and cast aside by increasingly-polarized voters. The media in particular are lamenting the loss of these moderates, claiming increased polarization and partisanship are disruptive to democracy and cutting off compromise.

In Indiana, for example, Richard Lugar foresaw the ignoble end of his 36-year Senate career so far out he had time to write a 1,425-word “concession” speech blasting his conquerer, Richard Mourdock. Democrats are not immune to this apparent purification either, with two redistricted Representatives, Tim Holden and Jason Altmire, now looking for work. The Pennsylvania pair were among the last of the Blue Dogs, their defeats attributed to “No” votes on the President’s controversial health care law. So, with two members of the Legislature sent packing on Tuesday, has this polarization come to Oregon?

Consider the case of Chris Telfer- Senator from Bend, former candidate for Treasurer, and one of two CPAs in Salem. She was also a bit of an anomaly in the Republican Party- not only was Telfer pro-choice and somewhat neutral on gay marriage, she was attacked for being unreliable on taxes and Oregon’s Kicker Law. Enter from stage right challenger and former House Majority Leader Tim Knopp. Shocking everybody on Filing Day- including the Senate Minority Leader himself- Knopp quickly began a conservative assault on Telfer and her record. He snatched up campaign veterans and racked up endorsements- most notably the Bend Bulletin and several grassroots organizations. However, the coup de grace came early, when two of Telfer’s Central Oregon colleagues picked Knopp instead of her.

Like Telfer, maverick Democrat Representative Mike Schaufler had his friends in Salem desert him- 10 of them, in fact- ahead of May’s primary. He had developed a reputation for sticking his fingers in the eyes of his caucus on several occasions. Schaufler was the only Democrat to vote against Measures 66 and 67 and Governor Kitzhaber’s health exchange bill. He also stepped to the right bank of his party’s mainstream on environmental issues and climate change. It was even rumored that Schaufler, upon election, might leave his Democratic Party and flip control of the House to the Republicans. Democrats were having none of that. When former teacher Jeff Reardon emerged as a credible, reliably-liberal challenger, Schaufler was done.

It would be easy to add Telfer and Schaufler to a growing list of moderate casualties in our increasingly poisoned, hyper-polarized political environment. It’s partisans, after all, who vote in Oregon’s closed primaries, and it’s partisans who have grown sick of moderates and compromisers thwarting what they want done in government. Knopp and Reardon pitched themselves as nothing if not reliable partisans who would stick their votes to a clear agenda. But did voters in Bend and Happy Valley necessarily vote for those agendas or for something else? It should be noted, for example, that the Bend Bulletin’s endorsement came in spite of Knopp’s social conservatism, which he more or less kept hidden on the campaign trail.

Money, of course, is the mother’s milk of politics. Knopp had lots of it, Telfer didn’t. Indeed, she saw no reason to raise funds before May, not expecting a challenger. This picture of disparity became clear a month out of the Primary: the well-known prolific fundraiser had Telfer outgunned with cash on hand by a factor of more than 4-to-1. Between January and April, Knopp had raised an astonishing $93,000 to Telfer’s paltry $2,500. The Senator was caught resting on her laurels and completely off guard. More importantly, she was unable to get her message out to constituents or mount an effective defense against Mr. Everywhere, Knopp. Thus, by aggressively outworking (and not out-righting) the incumbent, Knopp’s five-touchdown blowout surprised no one on Tuesday.

Schaufler, of course, had more skeletons in his closet than a med school professor. His infamous groping of a female lobbyist at an AFL-CIO convention last year has been well-documented. He lost his co-chairmanship of a key committee because of it. What’s more, Oregon has a part-time “citizens’ assembly,” meaning legislators are expected to have other jobs and live off more than their salary. It turns out Schaufler doesn’t have another job, and as the Willamette Week pointed out, used campaign contributions on personal expenses. While legal, the obvious ethical questions posed continued embarrassment to Party leaders and his own constituents. By Tuesday, the question of whether to keep the ethically-challenged incumbent or go for the squeaky-clean newcomer was an easy one.

The local defeat of two incumbents who happened to be moderates plays well into a national narrative of polarized primaries. As the saying goes, however, ultimately all politics are local. Had powerful organizations or local Tea Party groups wanted Telfer’s head, they would have run a challenger against her earlier- as they almost always do everywhere else in the country. That didn’t happen in Bend. A familiar face (officially) began his campaign on Filing Day, winning by the sweat of his brow and not the rigidity of his platform. In Happy Valley, independent positions alone would not have sank Mike Schaufler. If anything, he would have been able to use that to his advantage. Instead, Schaufler ran out of advantages as well as excuses. Local voters might have valued his independence but had enough of his antics. On Tuesday, the local context trumped the national narrative.

Brendan is a graduate student at Portland State University, where he hosts the KPSU “Right Jab” radio program, and a regular contributor at Oregon Catalyst. Brendan is studying political science, and graduated from The Ohio State University in 2007, with a degree in political science.