Despite a herculean effort to nudge the state’s two-party status quo, Patrick Starnes, Independent Party of Oregon candidate for governor, has been left out of the final two gubernatorial debates.
Starnes, a cabinet maker from Brownsville, entered the race at the last minute on a platform focused on reforming campaign finance to curb large donations. He has imposed his own limit on donations for his race – no more than $100 from any one donor.
Despite having almost no campaign money at the time, he nonetheless won the Independent nomination over the better-known names and better-financed campaigns of incumbent Democratic Gov. Kate Brown and GOP candidate Rep. Knute Buehler, who both campaigned for the nomination.
“I think it’s healthy for voters to hear about their options,” Sal Peralta, secretary of the Independent Party of Oregon, said in a September interview with the Statesman Journal. “The two largest parties no longer represent the majority opinion in this country.”
The makeup of Oregon’s electorate suggests an alternative to a Democratic or Republican candidate could be welcome.
Together with nonaffiliated and other third-party registrants, Independents account for about one third of the state’s 2,731,048 voters.
Yet, at every turn, Starnes has encountered obstacles to reaching voters beyond being financially dwarfed by his Democratic and Republican opponents.
As of Thursday, Brown had raised $7.8 million, Buehler, $8.1 million, and Starnes, $6,342, half of which was a loan from himself, according to the Oregon Secretary of State’s Office.
Starnes has orchestrated his campaign without staffers. He has traveled around the state and accepted nearly every invitation to share his message. In the process, he drove his wife, Mary’s Honda until the engine failed and has since used a work truck to attend campaign events.
From the outset, organizers of the three televised gubernatorial debates have resisted the idea of inviting Starnes, largely because of limited broadcast time and his unlikely odds of winning office.
Starnes was invited to the first debate Tuesday at Portland’s Roosevelt High School. He made the stage after the Independent Party threatened legal action.
Earlier that week, however, Starnes learned that he would not be invited to Thursday’s debate by KOBI in Medford and a debate next Tuesday in Portland hosted by KGW and The Oregonian.
In an email to Starnes earlier this week, Bob Wise, vice president of KOBI, wrote that “a debate at a television station is a news event, thus equal access is not required from all candidates.”
Wise said the station is limiting debate participants to those polling 10 percent or greater.
“You are polling at 4 percent,” Wise said. He didn’t cite a source but was likely referring to a poll by Clout Research in late September that showed about 3.9 percent of respondents would vote for Starnes, compared with 41.7 percent for Brown and 40.8 percent for Buehler.
John Tierney, executive producer at KGW, said given the hour-long format, “we need to limit the debate to just two candidates.”
Wise and Tierney declined further comment.
“You are hosting, staging and organizing an event for only two major party candidates. That is not news; it is a promotion piece,” Starnes responded in identical emails to Wise and Tierney.
He had planned to file an elections complaint against the news outlets with the state Elections Division and on Wednesday morning, went to Salem to discuss his case with state Elections Director Steve Trout.
But on Thursday, the Elections Division preemptively dismissed the complaint before Starnes ever filed it, he said.
Starnes still has the option to file the complaint but had not decided as of Thursday evening.
If filed, the complaint could test a 2017 state campaign finance law that encourages election debate hosts to invite all major party candidates. A complaint from Starnes would mark the first time anyone sought to enforce the law.
Lawyers with the Independent Party of Oregon argued that excluding a major party candidate carries a requirement to report an in-kind campaign contribution to the candidates who were included. The Independent Party became Oregon’s third major political party in 2015.
Legislative attorneys in July supported the Independent Party’s argument.
Deputy Legislative Counsel Dan Gilbert wrote that if a debate occurred within two months of the general election “it would likely fall within the expanded definition of a ‘communication in support of or in opposition to a clearly identified candidate or measure.’”
As a result, a media outlet that excluded a major party nominee would “likely” have to report the value of the debate as an independent expenditure or a contribution to the campaigns of the two participating candidates, Gilbert stated.
By filing the complaint, Starnes had hoped that the debate hosts would be forced to break down the cost of the debate and air time and report it as an in-kind contribution to the campaigns of Brown and Buehler.
“It is brand new territory,” Starnes said in an interview with Oregon Capital Bureau Wednesday.
Trout gave Starnes a courtesy call Thursday to say he and his staff had examined the law and concluded that a debate is not considered a campaign finance contribution, said Deb Royal, chief of staff for Secretary of State Dennis Richardson. His conclusion was based on the Oregon Campaign Finance Manual, which is based on all state campaign finance laws, Royal said.
The manual states that “any expenditures made by a broadcasting station, newspaper, magazine or other periodical publication to facilitate a debate or forum where a candidate or committee representative is invited to be a participant are not considered a contribution.”
Paris Achen: firstname.lastname@example.org or 503-363-0888. Achen is a reporter for the Portland Tribune working for the Oregon Capital Bureau, a collaboration of EO Media Group, Pamplin Media Group and Salem Reporter.