Conservative Measures Take Big Fall

Oregon voters took a sharp turn this election away from anti-government, anti-tax measures – and that stunned veteran conservative activists such as Don McIntire.

“The left has repudiated the concept of smaller government,” McIntire said Wednesday. “The majority – as far as I can tell – can’t get enough government or pay enough taxes.”

McIntire, a perennial figure on Oregon’s political scene, said he’s ready now to take a break. “It’s time for some fun hobbies,” he said.

Voters trounced the Measure 48 curb on state spending and the Measure 41 tax cut by wide margins. The measures lost in every county in the state. McIntire had toured the state touting the measures.

And most other measures championing conservative causes, from term limits to abortion restrictions to judicial reform, went down, down, down.

That’s a departure from trends in Oregon’s 103-year-old initiative system, where conservative-type ballot measures are significantly more likely to win, according to an analysis by University of Oregon law professor Tom Lininger.

Conservative activists have historically been successful because they seized on themes that resonate with voters, Lininger said.

Conservative measure campaigns in the past have used themes such as Oregon as maverick; hands-on government; and the power of the grass roots to rise up.

“People like to vote for initiatives that vindicate the power of the people,” Lininger said.

But this election, wealthy businessmen from New York and Nevada put up money to get six of the 10 measures on the ballot.

That out-of-state big-money backing became a liability in the campaigns. Proponents couldn’t muster their tried-and true theme of the little guy against taxes and big government. And the measures fell big.

But Russ Walker, Measure 48 chief petitioner and director of the Salem-based organization FreedomWorks, said he hoped that the source of the ideas – and the money that spreads them – wouldn’t matter to voters.

“I’d like to think Oregonians aren’t that provincial,” he said.

The anti-government, anti-tax measures this election suffered because conservatives lacked an easy-to-grasp theme, Lininger said.

The idea of voting for statewide judicial posts on a district basis, for example, just doesn’t get the juices flowing.

And people didn’t “buy the basic idea” behind Measure 41, of substituting federal deductions for state tax credits and getting more money back, Lininger said. Both state government-funding limitation measures seemed too complicated, he said.

The exception to the trend was Measure 39, which bars government from condemning property from one private citizen and handing it to another. Property rights have a zing right now, and the measure passed 67 percent to 31 percent.

Generally, the conservative ballot measures also were hobbled by the lack of central, visible leadership, which had led previous conservative measures, such as the tax-limiting Measure 5, to success before, Lininger said.

“(No one) has the stature now that Bill Sizemore did in his heyday,” Lininger said. “They just don’t seem to have the leadership they had 10 years ago.”

Anti-tax crusader Sizemore is beset by legal and financial problems these days, and voters on Tuesday buried his measure that would have barred insurance companies from using credit information to set rates for consumers.

It’s true that no one individual leader stands out, Walker said Tuesday, but his FreedomWorks group has 30,000 members in Oregon.

The publicity over crumbling schools and a loss of law enforcement staffing has been part of Oregon’s political debate for a dozen years, yet voters now seem to be listening, observers said.

That’s because with each year’s cuts in services, the loss touches more Oregonians, Lininger said. “Everyone sees at least one program they care about in jeopardy,” he said.

Will the attitudinal shift to the left in Oregon politics endure?

Walker finds hope in smaller, local tax measures – for gas taxes, bonds, personal income taxes – that failed in many communities across the state.

Conservatives believe their causes were hurt this election by low Republican voter turnout.

The final results won’t be available until later today, but it appeared Democratic turnout in 35 of 36 Oregon counties was higher than usual, said Neel Pender, executive director of the Oregon Democratic Party.

“In 2002 – when all was said and done – Republicans statewide turned out 3.5 percent higher than Democrats. This time, I’m guessing, that Democrats outperformed them by about 3 percent.”

Amy Langdon, executive director of the Oregon Republican Party, said it appeared true that Republican turnout lagged.

Republicans simply stayed home because they were disgusted with politics at the national level: corruption in Congress, the war in Iraq, and deficit spending, analysts said.

Eugene resident Gayle Atteberry, who has labored to curb abortion at the helm of Oregon Right to Life for decades, said she’s not giving up although the parental abortion notification measure fell 54 percent to 46 percent. “This is just one election,” she said.