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The Oregon Write-In Candidates Who May Have A Chance Of Winning

<p>Rep. Greg Walden, Oregon's only Republican congressman, has taken the unusual move of endorsing former Klamath County Commissioner Al Switzer as a write-in candidate for the May 2016 primary. </p>

Contributed photo by Al Switzer


Rep. Greg Walden, Oregon's only Republican congressman, has taken the unusual move of endorsing former Klamath County Commissioner Al Switzer as a write-in candidate for the May 2016 primary.

Write-in candidates usually come from the political fringes and don’t attract much support.

That’s not the case in a pair of legislative districts centered in Klamath County. Some of Oregon’s most powerful Republican politicians are backing write-in candidates in Tuesday’s primary for the two seats.

The local political establishment has been in an uproar since Sen. Doug Whitsett and Rep. Gail Whitsett, a husband-and-wife couple, withdrew from their re-election races the day after the March 8 deadline.

That left former Klamath County Commissioner Dennis Linthicum unopposed in the Senate District 28 seat and businessman Werner Reschke unopposed in House District 56. Both are Tea Party conservatives who had often warred with the local establishment — and they had filed only minutes before the deadline, leading critics to complain that the legislative seats were being stolen from voters.

“We don’t know exactly what they did,” Klamath Falls Mayor Todd Kellstrom said of the Whitsetts and the two candidates, “but we know it wasn’t on the level.”

Kellstrom organized a community meeting, which led to a series of write-in candidacies. The area is so Republican that Democrats didn’t even bother to run a candidate, and nobody had much interest in even seeking the Democratic nomination as a write-in.

In Tuesday’s Republican primary, C.W. Smith, a former Jackson County commissioner and sheriff, is running against Linthicum.

Former Klamath County Commissioner Al Switzer is running against Reschke, also in the GOP primary.

But that’s not all. Switzer is also seeking write-in votes for the Independent Party nomination, so even if he loses to Reschke in the primary, he could well get another shot in the fall.

In the state Senate race, Klamath County Museum manager Todd Kepple is also running as a write-in candidate on the Independent Party ticket. So, one way or another, it doesn’t look like Reschke or Linthicum will win a quick victory.

Rep. Greg Walden, Oregon’s sole Republican congressman, usually stays out of party primaries. But he has endorsed Smith and Switzer, both of whom are featuring Walden in their advertising.

House Minority Leader Mike McLane, R-Powell Butte, whose House seat makes up half of the Senate district, has endorsed Smith.

McLane and Walden both have reasons to be perturbed. McLane said he might have been interested in running for the Senate seat if he knew it was going to open up.

Walden had his own tussle with Linthicum in 2014 when the latter ran against him in the Republican congressional primary, charging that Walden wasn’t a true conservative. Linthicum traveled to D.C. to urge groups like the Club for Growth to support his campaign financially.

Linthicum never raised much money, but Walden spent more than a million dollars extinguishing his primary challenge.

Walden’s spokesman, Andrew Malcolm, declined to comment on the congressman’s involvement in the legislative race.

Linthicum said drily of Walden: “I should have sent him roses. I had no idea there is this much animosity.”

Linthicum and Reschke both insisted they hadn’t struck a deal with the Whitsetts and didn’t know they were going to drop out. The Whitsetts didn’t return several calls for comment.

Switzer and Smith both charge that Linthicum was more concerned with scoring ideological points than in scrutinizing county operations when he was commissioner. And they portray Reschke as his close ally.

The two write-in candidates said they would do a better job of working with other legislators in Salem to get things done for the region.

Linthicum is outspoken. For example, he wrote sympathetically of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge occupiers and questions federal ownership of public lands. But he argued that the establishment simply doesn’t like conservative government.

“They are all bummed they don’t have a liberal on the ballot,” he said.

Kellstrom, the Klamath Falls mayor, acknowledged that the write-in candidates have an uphill battle in Tuesday’s primary. But if they fail, he said he thinks Linthicum and Reschke will have a hard time fending off the Independent Party nominees — who won’t have to ask voters to write them in.

Copyright 2016 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Jeff Mapes is a senior political reporter at Oregon Public Broadcasting. Previously, Jeff covered state and national politics for The Oregonian for nearly 32 years. He has covered numerous presidential, congressional, gubernatorial and ballot measure campaigns, as well as many sessions of the Legislature, stretching back to 1985. Jeff graduated from San Jose State University with a B.A. in journalism.