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.

  • Rupert in Springfield

    Personally, I think the increasing polarization in politics is a good thing, and for two reasons.

    1 – Governmental sprawl. Any government that is not expressly limited will over time become unbound. Our government started as being limited and with defined powers. Beyond those it could not reach. Moderation and compromise has brought us to the point where substantial percentages of our leadership now thinks the Federal government has unlimited reach into everyone’s lives outside of abortion. For evidence of this we need only refer to Nacy “crazy eyes” Pelosi’s press conference statement where, when asked “by what constitutional authority can congress compel people to buy health care” she responded that the question was not serious and clearly indicated she had no idea on what such a question could be based.

    2 – Gridlock is good. With increasing polarization there is a theory that it gets harder and harder for government to actually do anything. I think there is some truth to this. Although a gridlocked government is not a limited one, it can accomplish a similar end. The more deadlocked a government is, the less law they can pass. That’s the first step to recovery and a good thing in my opinion.

    • Ty

      Well put statement and I like your ideas. I hope they prove true.

  • Bob Clark

    I see Romney as someone who can bring the two divisions together whereas Obama is winner takes all between the two divisions.  Romney looks to be branding his campaign the best he can, and not turning it into a circus of “birther” and Reverend Wright type tabloid issues.  It’s funny most people expect Obama to win according to Gallup polls and others, and I myself thought this even up to the March primaries, but people don’t necessarily vote who they will win (as well they shouldn’t).  The key is the next two to three jobs reports:  if the U.S doesn’t get back to a rate of 150k to 200k per month job growth, Romney probably gets the edge.  So, the economy the next two to three months is critical in determing who is in the White House come late next January.

    • Rupert in Springfield

       > if the U.S doesn’t get back to a rate of 150k to 200k per month job growth

      I don’t know that I’d agree with this, and the numbers you give give my reason why. First, I don’t think hat most people could list the monthly job growth within an order of magnitude. People just don’t pay attention at that level of detail. What they pay attention to is their mood, and what they perceive as the overall mood.

      Now – look at your numbers. 150,000 is horrible job growth. In fact it isn’t even growth, its just treading water in terms of population growth. Yet these days it is taken as a reasonably good number.

      That’s where the press come in, the mood. Remember the shortest and mildest recession on record?

      It was 2001 the end of Bush 1’s term. Yet Clinton rode in by repeating the line that it was the worst economy in the last 50 years. This after the fact that the Carter years where hardly a distant memory at the time. The press never questioned him on it and Clinton won the election because of it.

      Sure, the press is less powerful now than it was in that election and the people have far less trust in them. However that doesn’t mean that they wont have an effect.

      I still think Obama will win in a squeaker and will do so amidst an absolute and total news black out on anything that would be detrimental to his campaign. If the job numbers come in at 10k the night before the election, expect the press to compare that job growth number to the number of people fired by Romney when he was at Bain.

      • guest

         ABO-2102.  Pray for U.S. the abomination in the White House is sent packing to join Jeremiah Wright and Louis Farrakhan at the boarding gate for departure to the theological place of eternal punishment.

        Among those who’ll likely concur with this reconsignment:  Lloyd Marcus, Clarence Thomas, J.C. Watts, Thomas Sowell, Walter Williams, Janice Rogers Brown, Condoleeza Rice, Michael Steele, Alan Keyes, Bill Cosby, Allen West, Anne Wortham, Wintley Phipps, Juan Williams, Star Parker, Jeff Blackwell,, Michael Massie, Herman Cain, et al.

        • guest

           2102, yeah that’s when what’s left of U.S. might comprehend the blight.  Anyhow, it’s ABO-2012 and maybe the DNC can wisen up and come up with someone better at their convention.

  • valley personage

    What is a nice, bright-seeming young man like Brenden doing playing in the conservative sandbox? I give you 3 years before the paleos run you out.

    Polarized parties are not such a problem in Europe, where they have a parlimentary system and the party in power, or in a coalition, can actually govern. In a 2 party system it is a big problem because. particularly given the Senate, one party can’t really govern.

    Additionally, a big chunk of our electorate is “centrist” or “mixed,” as in libertarian on both personal rights and on economics, or pro labor and anti abortion as just 2 examples. Without any compromise possible, many people are left with no party to represent them. And this is an increasing issue.