Oregon State Sen. Jason AtkinsonAtkinson is the fresh face in a primary with two candidates who competed for the GOP nod in ’02: former State Party Chairman Kevin Mannix, who lost a close contest (49% to 46%) to Kulongoski four years ago, and wealthy attorney Ron Saxton, a moderate GOPer who placed third in the primary won by Mannix.
There are some who believe that his strong performance in ’02 merits another nomination for Mannix, a Democratic convert who cast liberal votes in the legislature and then became a fighting conservative when he switched parties. Skeptics counter that Mannix has lost three statewide races (once for attorney general as a Democrat, and then for attorney general and governor as a Republican) and is still carrying a six-figure debt from his last gubernatorial race.
Saxton is cut more from the cloth of such decidedly moderate Oregon GOP leaders of the past as former Gov. (1958-66) and Sen. (1966-96) Mark Hatfield, former Sen. (1968-96) Robert Packwood, and late Gov. (1966-74) Tom McCall. "Oregon Republicans, though as unpredictable as their counterparts throughout the West, have a tradition of liberalism," wrote veteran political pundit David Broder in his 1967 book The Republican Establishment. This began to change in 1968, when large numbers of Teamsters, normally Republican in Oregon and a mainstay of moderate and liberal GOP candidates, changed their registration from Republican to Democrat to vote for Minnesota Sen. Eugene McCarthy in the presidential primary against Robert Kennedy — arch-antagonist of Teamster President James R. Hoffa. (In beating RFK, McCarthy inflicted the first political defeat ever on a member of the Kennedy clan.) The Teamsters stayed with the Democratic Party, and in 1978, moderate-to-conservative State Sen. Vic Atiyeh won the GOP nomination for governor in a spectacular upset by thwarting the comeback attempt of the moderate McCall. Since then, Republican nominees for governor have, more often than not, come from the right side of the party.
Oregon campaign finance laws are the desired rules for conservatives: no limits on the size of donations, just immediate reporting. Atkinson supports this, but quickly added that the bulk of the $500,000 he has so far raised has comes from small donors. As he put it, "I wrote 92 handwritten thank you notes in one day, one of them to a lady in a park trailer."
A recent sign of Atkinson’s growing political muscle came at the GOP’s annual Dorchester Conference, normally a haven for moderate party activists. While Saxton won the straw vote with 162 attendees, Atkinson placed a surprising second with 151 votes, followed by Mannix with 62.
(Atkinson for Governor, P.O. Box 1965, Wilsonville, Ore. 97070; 541-601-7865; www.atkinsonforgovernor.com)