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What’s the open primary payoff?

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Saturday, April 01, 2006

Would an open primary for Oregon’s state elections increase the influence of the state’s largest business lobby, Associated Oregon Industries? Two of the state’s leading political scientists suggest it could.

The open primary would allow voters of any political party and independents to back any candidate they like — regardless of the candidate’s political stripe — with the top two candidates advancing to a runoff in the general election. Two former Oregon secretaries of state, Phil Keisling and Norma Paulus, are working to put the open primary idea to a vote in November, and they have the backing of Oregon political heavyweights from all over the spectrum. Supporters say opening up the field would remove the stranglehold of narrow interest groups, which dominate the Republican and Democratic primaries and often turn out to be the kingmakers in sparsely attended primaries by motivating single-issue followers — anti-abortion activists, hardcore environmentalists — to show up at the polls. 

The result is more extreme and partisan candidates in the general election, keeping more moderates away from the polls, which leads to hard-line representatives in Salem and the sort of party-led gridlock we’re experiencing these days. Tinker with the system at the start, say open primary backers, and eventually you get a more engaged electorate and more moderate and consensus-building Legislature out the other end.

But the open primary will merely shift the role of candidate kingmaker, not eliminate it, say Russ Dondero, professor emeritus at Pacific University, and Bill Lunch, an Oregon State University political professor and commentator. As the Democratic and Republican parties lose power, voters will be looking for new cues as to how to vote. And new interest groups will step into the vacuum.

Which ones? It’s a good bet that Associated Oregon Industries, the business lobby based in Salem, could increase its influence. AOI’s political action committee (PAC) has given $20,000 to the open primary campaign to date and has also started a program to recruit and financially support pro-business candidates for the Legislature, regardless of party ties.

“I’m not surprised that AOI has stepped up to support the open primary initiative: It’s in their long-term interest to have an open field,” says Dondero.

Harvey Mathews, who directs AOI’s PAC, denies that his group is trying to grow its clout through the open primary. He says his members just want a functioning Legislature. “The partisan bullshit carries over into the party caucuses in the Legislature,” he says.

A concentration of power in a business lobby may not be so bad if you’re one of AOI’s 20,000 statewide members. The existing primary system has tended to crowd out pro-business candidates who don’t take a hard line on social issues — Republican Ron Saxton’s loss to Kevin Mannix in the 2002 gubernatorial primary is a prime example. And Keisling says that the power of interest groups may actually be minimized over the long term because the open primary will make all races more competitive and force interest groups to spread their cash over a greater number of candidates. 

But the open primary, heralded as a solution to low voter turnout, still doesn’t address the key issue keeping voters from the polls: the ability of moneyed interests to buy political influence. Bill Lunch notes that Washington’s 60-year-old primary system, which allows voters to cross party lines and participate in any party’s primary, hasn’t raised turnout much above Oregon’s.

Former state Rep. Deborah Kafoury, a weary veteran of partisanship, says the open primary “is not campaign finance reform. People are desperate to back anything that they think will break gridlock, and this is the solution du jour. I’m open to it, but people will need to persuade me that it will work.”

— Oakley Brooks


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