Policy Northwest
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Policy Northwest

Mike Nearman, Survivor

Oregon House District 23 is one of the most conservative legislative districts in Oregon. A sprawling, entirely rural district, it snakes alongside the West side of the Willamette Valley and Coast Range, bordering but never touching the towns of Corvallis, Monmouth, Sheridan, McMinnville, Salem and Junction City. The largest town in the district is Dallas, Oregon, population 14,000. The second largest is Amity, population 1,600. The rest of the scarecrow shaped district is comprised of unincorporated areas and under 1,000 person hamlets.

With an older electorate, a high voter turnout rate, entirely rural makeup, and the fourth highest number of registered Republicans of any House district in Oregon, it should be a sleepy district. But for the past three cycles, it has had among the craziest legislative races in the state.

Before 2014, the district was sleepy, represented by moderate lifelong Republican Jim Thompson, who at first appeared poised to win a fourth term, facing token resistance from Democrats and third party candidates.

However, after Thompson announced his support for gay marriage in early 2014, Oregon Right to Life and the Oregon Family Council donated large sums to primary challenger Mike Nearman, a previously unheard of IT consultant. Thanks to the $76,000 and $69,000 donations respectively, Nearman began a well-funded smear campaign against Thompson, criticizing the representative for his support of a public safety levee, gay marriage, and working with Democrats on creating a health insurance exchange that failed disastrously. Although Thompson raised about $38,000 more than Nearman, he lost decisively.

Thompson’s primary loss to Nearman was part of a larger schism in the Oregon GOP in 2014, as the Dorchester Conference, the mainline GOP conference in the state, endorsed an impending gay marriage legalization ballot initiative, a move that caused social conservatives in the party to break off and hold their own conference.

The race had a chaotic conclusion, as multiple third parties took vote shares in the general election, as well as Jim Thompson, who ran a write-in campaign after losing his primary to Nearman. Nearman prevailed with just under 53% of the vote, defeating the second place candidate, Wanda Davis, by double digits.

Nearman wasn’t well liked in his own party from the beginning. After Nearman won his primary election, the state senator Brian Boquist, representing territory that included the entirety of District 23, filed an ethics complaint against Nearman for not identifying his and his wife’s sources of income. Nearman settled the ethics complaint after winning the general election, receiving a letter of education instead of a fine.

That wasn’t Nearman’s only trouble. After another complaint from Boquist, the Oregon Department of Justice opened an investigation into whether illegal coordination took place between Nearman’s campaign and the Oregon Family Council and Oregon Right to Life, which had bankrolled his campaign. Furthermore, Nearman received Flak for speaking at a gun rally organized by militia groups that also included the notorious sheriff Joe Arpaio.

As a result of those scandals, Nearman faced a significant primary challenge when seeking re-election in 2016, winning by a relatively narrow margin over Beth Jones, a more moderate GOP candidate who called for investment in education and government transparency, contrasting herself with Nearman’s priorities of religious freedom and gun rights.

Democrats tried again to unseat Nearman in the general, hoping he was weakened by apparent party disunity. Jim Thompson, the former representative unseated by Nearman two years prior, switched his party registration from Republican to Independent, was endorsed by the Democratic Party, who campaigned for him, and Democrat-aligned union PACs donated to his campaign. Even his intended 2014 challenger, Wanda Davis, appeared on a mailer endorsing Thompson. All this despite Thompson hinting that he would caucus with Republicans if elected.

Oregon Public Broadcasting described the race as a “soap opera” in its final weeks, as the Oregon DOJ’s investigation dragged on and on, accidentally being left open, concluding and clearing Nearman of wrongdoing only days before the general election. Given that Oregon is a mail-ballot state, many voters cast their ballots before the investigation’s conclusion.

Once again, Nearman prevailed by just under 53%. Notably, the Green Party candidate Alex Polikoff pulled over 10% of the vote in the Benton County segments of the district, the district’s most liberal section.

In 2018, Democrats tried again. They nominated an ex-Navy pilot heavily supported by Indivisible activists supercharged by the election of Donald Trump. Said candidate, Danny Jaffer, won the Independent and Working Family Party nominations through write-in votes, and was endorsed by the Green Party. Oh, and Jaffer also won the endorsement of Nearman’s GOP primary challenger, who had been handily defeated by Nearman 74%-26%.

Scandals had continued to follow Nearman since 2016, with his policy aide charged and later jailed for supplying weapons to a felon who was part of a far-right militia. Nearman admitted that he knew about his aide’s ties to far-right groups and criminal background. Less than two months before the election, national attention fell on the district when it was revealed by the Daily Beast that Nearman was the Vice President of an anti-immigrant SPLC designated hate group, Oregonians for Immigration Reform, despite Nearman’s previous statements that he was only a board member of the organization.

Nearman prevailed again, despite the five party coalition against him, winning just over 54% of the vote. However, Nearman lost another race that night, as the anti-sanctuary state ballot measure pushed for by Oregonians for Immigration Reform failed 36%-63%.

Democrats have thrown everything and the kitchen sink at Nearman. He’s survived challenges from former Republican incumbents, multi-party coalitions, primary challenges, multiple investigations, and has shown resilience to scandal. There’s not much more Democrats can do. Campaigning in the district is extremely difficult and expensive, consisting mainly of mailers and phone calls, as canvassing is prohibitively expensive in rural areas, and the size and shape of the district prevents any unified media market from existing, blunting the efficacy of advertising. Furthermore, there are numerous GOP held districts that are more vulnerable than the 23rd district that Democrats will be targeting in future cycles. Given the Trump-era political realignment that has resulted in rural areas going hard GOP, it’s unlikely the situation will improve anytime soon for Democrats.

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Andrew Damitio

Andrew Damitio

Environmental Economics and Policy alum of Oregon State University

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