Election of Oregon statewide candidates without prior government experience rare

Reagan Knopp2_thb

by Reagan Knopp

I was asked to research the last time a candidate of either major party was elected statewide with no prior government experience. I haven’t had the time to put together an in-depth look at the official records and fully confirm they had no elected experience, but here are the results of my less-than-extensive research.

Note: If you have more information (on State Treasurer or Attorney General, for example) or records that indicate something counter to what I say here, please reach out and let me know.

United States Senator

On the GOP side, Wayne Morse was elected during World War II in 1944 without any prior experience as an elected official. He later became an Independent and then a Democrat but was elected as a Republican.

Democrats have never had a candidate win election to the U.S. Senate without any prior political experience; unless you count James Nesmith in 1861 on two technicalities. Nesmith served as a representative in Oregon’s provisional legislature from Polk County and was elected by Oregon’s first Legislature in 1860 to be Oregon’s first U.S. Senator. His inclusion on this list includes two major asterisks:

  1. He technically had no governmental experience in Oregon State government since Oregon had only been a state for about a year when he was elected by asterisk number two.
  2. The Oregon legislature elected the first few U.S. Senators. The United States did not have direct election of U.S. Senators by voters until approval of the 17th Amendment in 1913 and the use in 1914 by Oregon voters to re-elect incumbent Senator George E. Chamberlain.


The last Oregon Governor with no elected experience was Charles Sprague, a Republican elected in 1939. He wasn’t unknown when he ran, but he was a newcomer to elected office. Sprague was a newspaper mogul for a lack of a better term. He was the business manager for the Corvallis Gazette-Times and eventually bought a controlling stake in the Oregon Statesman which is now the Statesman Journal.

On the Democratic side, Oswald West was the last Governor with no prior elected experience. He was appointed to a couple of positions but never elected until 1911 when he became governor. Most of West’s experience was as a bureaucrat. He served as Oregon State Land Agent and spent time on the Oregon Railroad Commission as well.

Secretary of State

Henry Clay Myers, Jr. is the last Republican Secretary of State without prior elected experience. Myers was elected in 1967 and went on to be Oregon State Treasurer.

Lucien Heath was the last Democratic Secretary of State with no prior elected experience. Heath was elected in 1859.

Bureau of Labor and Industries Commissioner

O.P. Hoff was the first BOLI Commissioner and the only one I can find with no prior elected experience.

Although not completely unprecedented, statewide office is not normally bestowed upon candidates with no experience as an elected official in the modern political era.

To read more from Reagan, please visit his blog at www.reaganknopp.net