It’s barely August, and many voters aren’t really focused on candidates and issues yet. But the interests who want to sway those voters already are hard at work, judging by a mysterious “poll” that has injected an atmosphere of negativity into a closely watched legislative race.
Oregon Senate District 3, which encompasses Medford, Ashland and Jacksonville along with Talent and Phoenix, long has been a swing district, fiercely contested by Republicans and Democrats. Democratic Sen. Alan Bates managed to hold it for several years, but after his death, Republican Alan DeBoer won the seat.
This year, with DeBoer stepping down, District 3’s importance to the major parties stretches far beyond Southern Oregon, because if the Democrats can snatch it back, it could give them a supermajority of 18 seats in the upper chamber, allowing them to raise taxes without Republican votes.
District 3 races have a history of attracting money from state party organizations and others who have launched attack ads, sometimes without the approval or even knowledge of the candidates they were trying to help. Those efforts have appeared to backfire in past elections, because local voters tend to resent upstate interests trying to tell them how to vote.
This time, the negativity came from a “poll” — we use quotes because it didn’t appear to be seeking information so much as leveling attacks on both candidates, Democrat Jeff Golden and Republican Jessica Gomez. District residents reported getting calls asking them which candidate they preferred, and then asking them if they knew about alleged misconduct or financial irregularities supposedly attached to that candidate. The odd thing was that both Golden and Gomez were attacked.
Both candidates’ campaigns say they weren’t behind the calls, and DeBoer, who is backing Gomez, says state Republican leaders aren’t responsible, either.
The tactic appears to mimic what is known as a “push” poll, designed to sway voters by discrediting one candidate or the other rather than determine voters’ preferences — except that this one is an equal-opportunity trasher, taking aim at both sides.
It’s possible it’s just a prank, or it could be an effort to test how well specific allegations play with voters, to help design attack ads to run later in the campaign. It could even be designed to suppress turnout by damaging voters’ willingness to participate at all.
Regardless of the motivation, it’s ugly and it’s not the way elections should be conducted. It also raises the issue of public accountability. State law requires political action committees to disclose contributions to candidates, including in-kind help such as paying for a poll. But it can be difficult to connect a reported contribution with a specific poll.
The best defense against this kind of activity is for voters to listen to the candidates themselves, not negative ads or telephone calls, and to focus on the issues, not questionable personal attacks.