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Politics & Government

Klamath Region Spawns Oregon’s Oddest Legislative Races This Year

A bit of covert political sleight of hand has made a pair of legislative races in south central Oregon the focus of attention this election season. JPR’s Liam Moriarty sorts out who’s who in the oddest of this year’s legislative races.

Dennis Linthicum seems a little exasperated that he keeps getting asked about how he came to be the Republican nominee in the race for the Senate seat in District 28.

“Doug Whitsett followed rules, I followed rules and now we’ve got bigger fish to fry,” he told JPR during an interview at Republican campaign headquarters in Klamath Falls.

Doug Whitsett is the three-term Republican Senator whose seat Linthicum is seeking. Last fall, Whitsett and his wife Gail – the state representative from the overlapping 56th House District – said they’d run for re-election this year. Now, this is a district where Republicans outnumber Democrats two-to-one, so the local Dems often don’t even try to run a candidate against popular incumbents like the Whitsetts.

Long-time Klamath Falls Mayor, Todd Kellstrom says, “Everybody thought, OK, this is just going to be an incumbent thing again, and it’s going to be fine.”

So, Kellstrom says, he and a lot of other locals were stunned when Doug and Gail Whitsett announced last spring that they’d decided not to run after all. Meanwhile, Dennis Linthicum – a former Klamath County Commissioner -- and local businessman Werner Reschke filed literally three minutes before the 5:00 p.m. deadline on March 8th. The incumbents’ abrupt withdrawal the next day left Linthicum as the only candidate in the Senate race, and Reschke unopposed for the House seat, except for an unafilliated candidate; more on him later.

Todd Kellstrom says his reaction to what appeared to be the Whitsetts essentially handing their seats to chosen successors was instant and strong.

“That stinks,” he says. “We don’t do things like that.”

Kellstrom says he and others also see Linthicum and Reschke as too politically extreme for the district. Both bill themselves as “constitutional conservatives” and have staked out hard right positions on a range of issues. Kellstrom called a meeting with other concerned community members to find more moderate Republicans to run against Linthicum and Reschke.

The resulting hastily-put together write-in campaign during the May primary failed. As the only Republicans on the ballot, Linthicum and Reschke handily won the Republican nominations. One of those write-in candidates was Klamath County museum manager and former journalist Todd Kepple.

“There was no Democratic candidate that filed in this race,” Kepple says,”so we went to our Democratic friends and said, ‘Just to be sure we get on the ballot, would you consider writing in Todd Kepple, even though he’s registered as a Republican?’, and more than 600 of them did.”

So Kepple ended up on the Democratic ballot line. Similarly, former Klamath County Commissioner Al Switzer also won a place on the Democratic ballot line as a write-in. So now, you’ve got two registered Republicans, running as Democrats, trying to defeat the two official Republican candidates.

As mentioned, there’s also a non-affiliated candidate running for the House seat; Jonah Hakanson proudly belongs to no party and says the shenanigans surrounding the major party ballots illustrates why he avoids party politics.

The Whitsetts have declined to answer media questions about the filing maneuver and Dennis Linthicum and Werner Reschke have repeatedly denied they colluded with the Whitsetts. For his part, Linthicum claims official vindication.

“The Secretary of State’s Election Division said what Linthicum did, and Whitsett, what they did was neither illegal, unethical or unusual” Linthicum says, “so that means it was both usual, legal and perfectly ethical.”

But the Secretary of State’s communication director Molly Woon says her office has no record of making such a statement. In an email reply, Woon confirms the filing maneuver was not illegal, but she says her office takes no stand on its ethics.

And, she writes, “Being silent on the question of ethics cannot be fairly equated to finding it to be ‘ethical.’”

Bill Lunch is professor emeritus of political science at Oregon State University. He says these kinds of tactics are certainly not unheard of.

“It’s sharp-edged politics, in a way that would not raise a single eyebrow in New Jersey or Maryland or Illinois.”

The reason it’s created a fuss here, Lunch says, is because that’s not normally the Oregon way.

“Oregon has a history and a political culture” he says, “which is called the ‘moralistic’ political culture in which the practices in politics should reflect the moral standards and beliefs of the community.”

Newspaper editorial boards in Klamath Falls, Medford and Bend have criticized what’s come to be called The Whitsett Maneuver, and have endorsed Kepple in the Senate race. Linthicum says that – rather than dealing with what he calls “rumor and speculation and gossip” -- the media ought to be focusing on his ideas for promoting economic growth and protecting rural Oregonians from unfair taxes and government overreach.

Judging by yard signs and letters to the local papers, Linthicum and Reschke have plenty of defenders. We’ll find out soon whether the means by which the pair got on the ballot has turned off enough voters that a majority in this deep-red district will check the box for Republicans in Democrats’ clothing.