What set this little race apart from the many other legislative races out there? It was a race where the netroots and their allies spotted a problem -- the need to replace an entrenched but troublesome conservaDem, Mike Schaufler, with someone more progressive -- and worked harmoniously to solve it. And solve it they did: in the end, the netroots-backed challenger, Jeff Reardon, not ony won, but did so by a crushing 66-34 margin.
After a few initial high-profile successes (like Ned Lamont's victory over Joe Lieberman or Donna Edwards' victory over Al Wynn, both in 2006), we haven't seen a lot of netroots primaries with happy endings recently. However, this one did, and there are some takeaways we might learn from it:
• Start small. State legislatures are important in their own right, as we've seen in ALEC's attempts to implement the Republican agenda state-by-state, or how much impact Republican control over legislatures had on the decennial redistricting process. And they're the main bench for developing Democratic talent for federal races later. But unlike federal races -- where netroots dollars are just a drop in the bucket -- the much smaller size of legislative districts plays into progressive strengths, where on-the-ground organizing and face-to-face persuasion can be more important than who racks up six or seven figures for TV advertising. That was the case in Oregon.
• Get focused. instead of spreading things around too many different races, in the case of the Oregon race, progressives found the weakest link and made that their sole focus. This was especially important because Oregon currently has a 30-30 split between the parties in the state House; one Democrat who occasionally sides with the Republicans can make all the difference in the balance of power. Not every other House Dem is the model of 100% progressiveness, but they found the one who was least cooperative, yet still in a district blue enough to support a more progressive alternative.
• Find friends. This wasn't a netroots race alone (though MoveOn publicized it a lot). A number of labor unions and environmental groups (like League of Conservation Voters) also got in the fight, providing financial resources, and Oregon's labor-backed Working Families Party provided much of the firepower on the ground. Also, they located a battleground with favorable terrain: Oregon has closed primaries, meaning only Democrats were participating, and it's also a relatively "clean politics" state with little in the way of traditional machine politics, where a hierarchical power structure might blunt any insurgency (as the netroots found out to its chargin in one of its bigger fails, the 2008 attempt to primary out conservaDem Dan Lipinski in Chicago's dark-blue IL-03).
We'll delve into the details of this race over the fold:
Mike Schaufler, the ten-year incumbent in this race, is a blue-collar guy, and for many years carried a pro-labor reputation. He'd been a member of the Laborers union, and even in 2012 still managed to get the backing of some unions (like the AFL-CIO). However, he slowly drifted away from that over the years, to the point where there wasn't much that was pro-working people about his voting in the last few years. That wasn't a problem in the years 2006-2010 when Democrats controlled the state House, but it's become a much bigger problem in the most recent cycle, when the GOP gained enough seats back in the 2010 wave to eke out a 30-30 split in the chamber. Cases in point:
• he was the decisive vote that sent a bill that would have created health insurance exchanges back to committee;
• in 2009, he was the only Democratic vote against raising taxes on corporations and wealthy individuals (which was eventually enacted through the initiative process via Measures 66 & 67); and
• was one of only a few Democrats to vote against legislation that extended state consumer protection laws to include banks.
In addition, he'd also run into some personal foibles, concerning drinking and even losing his committee co-chairmanship after sexual harassment allegations. In short, he'd made himself vulnerable; all that was needed was a credible challenger.
Into that role stepped Jeff Reardon, a soon-to-be retired teacher and former technical writer who had also served on a suburban Clackamas County school board for ten years. Reardon picked up the early backing of the Working Families Party and the League of Conservation Voters, and from there, got the endorsement of a number of the unions that back the WFP, including the United Food and Commercial Workers. From there, he also got the support of the Carpenters, the Oregon School Employees Association, and the AFSCME. He even got the backing of the Laborers -- Schaufler's old union.
Were this a predominantly rural district that was only inclined to elect Blue Dog-type Democrats, this primary might have been ill-advised. However, the 48th district is a mix of well-educated middle-class parts of southeast Portland, and close-in suburbs across the Clackamas County line (some of which are pretty affluent, like Happy Valley). It's a district that went 63% for Obama (around D+9)... in other words, the kind of district that's blue enough that a progressive can win the primary, and one where a reputable Democrat isn't going to be in any danger in the general. In addition, the newly redistricted 48th contained only 40% of Schaufler's former constituents, meaning that the majority of voters were coming into the race as blank slates, without an incumbent that they've gotten used to.
The real turning point in the race, however, may have been when it was discovered that Schaufler had accepted a $3,000 contribution from the Koch brothers. (Schaufler, in fact, was the first legislative candidate west of the Rockies to get money from Koch Industries.) This was discovered almost immediately, thanks to Oregon's rolling reporting requirements (in federal races and most other states, contributions only need to be reported quarterly, meaning this could have escaped attention much longer). Faced with a loud outcry, Schaufler wound up returning the contribution. That inspired a closer look by the WFP at Schaufler's finances, though, and it turned out that, while none of his other money came from sources as comic-book-villainous as the Koches, very little of his money came from small donors and most of it came from other corporate interests.
The Koch-money story may have changed the narrative, but ultimately, the difference maker was the ground game. According to the Working Families Party, they knocked on 14,092 doors, made 9,137 phone calls, and ended up with 4,928 contacts (in a district with only a little more than 60,000 residents). (If you're wondering about the "Working Families Party," Oregon is one of only a few states that allows fusion voting, like New York and Connecticut. Like in these other states, the WFP is a grassroots party that will cross-endorse progressive Democratic candidates in primaries and generals, rather than running their own candidates and playing the spoiler (as with the third parties that usually come to mind first, like the Greens). Reardon will be running under the WFP as well as Democratic lines on the November ballot.)
In the end, Reardon won by a nearly two-to-one margin, a surprising result for any primary challenge to an entrenched incumbent. There was a bit of a perfect storm here that may account for the dominant totals -- the scrambled district lines, the sexual harassment story, the late-breaking news about the Koch money -- but it also shows what's possible when the netroots, and labor and environmental allies, work together smoothly and make smart targeting choices.