What the Oregon Senate Primary Tells us about our Party System
This is more about structural conditions than it is about the GOP.
As James Joyner noted earlier this week, the Republican nominee for US Senate in the State of Oregon has shown connections, if not full support, to the conspiratorial Q/Anon internet phenomenon. James’ post describes the basics of this movement (for lack of a better word), but I will emphasize that it is disturbing to have any public figure subscribing to or promoting Q/Anon’s worldview and it is (or should be) an embarrassment to the Republican Party that they now have a nominee affiliated at all with it.
However, to what degree is this revelatory about the current evolution of the GOP? The fact is, as unsettling as it is, this is a non-competitive race that simply underscores a variety of institutional flaws in our electoral apparatus.
First, important context can be established by looking at the partisan makeup of the state.
Recent Senate races:
- 2016: 56.6% D, 33.3% R
- 2014: 55.7% D, 36.9% R
- 2010: 58.3% D, 39.3% R
The last time the state voted Republican for president was in 1984, when the state went for Reagan. The states’s House delegation is four Ds and one R.
The governor of Oregon has been a Democrat since 1987.
Statewide election of a Republican is not impossible, as Dennis Richardson won the Secretary of State position in 2016 47%-43%.* However, the position had been occupied by a Democrat for the previous twenty years (5 terms).
In general, it is fair to note that the state has been clearly majority Democratic since the mid-to-late 1980s (with a couple of statewide executive offices going Republican in the very early 1990s).
Fundamentally, this is a heavily pro-Democratic electoral environment. Given that the chances are low that a Republican would win, it diminishes the incentive for quality candidates to run (the bios of the GOP aspirants is not exactly set-the-world-on-fire types). It certainly undercuts the interests of donors in funding a race.
As I recently noted, the bottom line remains that a central function of political parties is to provide voters with a shorthand. Most voters don’t know the difference between John Smith and Linda Jones when they see their names on the ballot, but if there is an R after Smith’s name and a D after Jones’ that the voter has a way to make a choice.
As a result, a lot of Oregon Republicans are going to vote for a pro-Q/Anon politician without probably even knowing what that means.
I would be willing to bet that many of us have unwittingly voted for kooks because we voted our partisan preferences for a candidate destined to lose due to the partisan mix of the district. For example. with the exception of Doug Jones in the 2017 special election, I am not sure if the Democratic Party of Alabama has had a quality candidate for US Senate the 22+ years I have lived in the state.
More than telling us anything about the GOP, per se, this race does tell us two really important things about our institutions:
- The lack of competition is a problem and it leads to suboptimal politics. If we had more proportional outcomes in elections that promoted multiple parties, the parties would be incentivized to invest in better candidates.
- The primary process takes the formal party out of the equation in terms of recruiting quality candidates. This makes it easier for fringe candidates to be nominated (and sometimes to win the highest office in the land, in fact).
Also: while the Republican nominee, Perkins, won a large plurality (49.3% of the vote, but I am not sure if all votes have been counted or not), she still couldn’t even win an absolute majority. Given the low turnout for primaries, especially for parties destined to lose the general election, this is not an overwhelming endorsement.
Also of consequence: of the four GOP candidates who ran for the nomination, only two Perkins (the winner) and Romero (the guy who came in second with roughly 30% of the vote) appear to have spent any money at all on the race. Perkins spent, according to Open Secrets, spentaround $23k and Romero about $6k.
BTW, the incumbent Democrat spent almost $6.5 million. Compare that figure to the $23k of the GOP challenger and what more do you need to know about the nature of this contest?
Odds are the only Republican most voters had heard of going into the primary was Perkins, and she won ~49% of the vote. It is a reasonable hypothesis to suggest that Perkins had more yard signs out with 23k than did Romero with 6k, and hence the outcome. The degree to which this shows Q/Anon capture of the GOP is limited, to be kind.
Instead of this being a big lesson about how the GOP is going down the tubes, it is far more likely that it is a story of non-competitive politics, poor quality candidates, and very little money spent by Republicans in general. It is a story about why single-seat districts plurality elections to choose candidates and primaries as nominating processes are a problem.
Basically, this race tells us a whole lot more about the non-competitive nature of Oregon politics and institutional flaws in our democracy than it does about the Republican Party.
*Richardson died in office in 2019 and his replacements have been Republicans (first an acting SoS and then an appointed replacement). Note that Oregon law requirement an appointed replacement to be from the same party as the person being replaced.