We have yet to settle the first debate over this year's set of gubernatorial debates, and now a second question has raised its head:
Should Patrick Starnes, the Brownsville cabinetmaker who recently claimed the Independent Party nomination for governor, be invited onto the same stages where Democrat Kate Brown and Republican Knute Buehler will debate?
We think the answer to the second question is "yes," especially since the answer to the first question almost certainly will boil down to a limited number of debates; Buehler wants up to 10 debates, while Brown has agreed to three.
We suspect this doesn't sit well with either Brown or Buehler, since it doesn't really jibe with what's emerging as key messages in their campaigns: At times this fall, it will appear as if Brown, the incumbent, is not so much running against Buehler as she is against President Donald Trump. Buehler's likely ace in the hole will be to attack Brown for lackluster leadership. Neither position has much room to accommodate a third voice.
But Starnes has an ace up his sleeve as well.
The Independent Party qualified as a major political party in Oregon in 2015, when just over 5 percent of the state's registered voters affiliated themselves with the party. Now, it likely is true (as the Eugene Register-Guard newspaper pointed out in a recent editorial) that at least some of those Independent (capital I) voters thought they were signing up for independent (lower-case i) status and didn't want to affiliate themselves with any political party. But to do that in Oregon, you have to check the "nonaffiliated" box.
But that doesn't matter: The fact is that the Independent Party now qualifies as a major political party in Oregon, and that comes with some benefits: For starters, the party now enjoys equal status with the Democratic and Republican parties under state law.
There's another catch as well: State law says that any debate held within 60 days of the election must include all major party candidates, or the organizers of the debate (typically news organizations or nonprofit groups) have to declare the cost of the event as an in-kind donation to the candidates who do take part. The Independent Party says it'll make sure that law is followed to the letter.
Being forced to disclose a donation like that won't sit well with either news organizations or groups like the League of Women Voters, which pride themselves on being nonpartisan.
The result? Starnes likely will be invited to participate in the debates that eventually do get scheduled.
Buehler has said he welcomes Starnes' participation in some of the debates. Brown's camp seems noncommittal. But neither candidate can credibly argue that the Independent Party isn't a player in state politics, since both sought the Independent nomination in the primary election. (More than half of the voters in the Independent Party primary cast write-in votes, which is how Brown and Buehler hoped to capture the nomination. Starnes won with 26 percent of the vote.)
One of the challenges debate organizers face in staging the events is figuring out ways to get the candidates to move beyond their well-rehearsed talking points; this will be particularly challenging with Brown and Buehler, a pair of seasoned campaigners. Having Starnes on the stage might introduce a welcome X factor to the proceedings.
It also will give Starnes a chance to expand beyond his key theme: combating the influence of big money on state politics. It's an important point, but he can't run the risk of being perceived as a single-issue candidate.
Our guess is that the final number of debates between the candidates will be closer to three than the 10 or so Buehler seeks. Given the limited number of events, it's particularly important that Starnes gets the chance to make his case before a statewide audience. What he does with that spotlight is up to him. (mm)