Image for Secretary of State Race to Headline 2020 Oregon Elections

The 2020 general election will be dominated by the impeachment-fueled presidential contest. In Oregon, the unlikely 2020 election headliner could be the race for secretary of state.

So far, four Democrats and no Republicans have filed for the post, which oversees state elections, administers public records, conducts audits, holds a seat on the 3-person Oregon Land Board and chairs the Oregon Sustainability Board.

Under the Oregon Constitution, the secretary of state is next in line to succeed the governor. He or she plays the lead role in congressional and legislative redistricting, which will follow after the US Census next year. Historically, the office has been a launch pad for gubernatorial candidacies – and may be again in 2020.

Bev Clarno holds the post now after she was appointed following the death of Dennis Richardson in February. Governor Brown was obligated to appoint a Republican replacement, but she limited her choice to someone who wouldn’t run for the job in 2020. Richardson was the first Republican to win statewide office since Gordon Smith won a US Senate seat in 1996. 

The two biggest names in the race are Senator Mark Hass from Beaverton and former House Majority Leader Jennifer Williamson from Portland. Jamie McLeod-Skinner of Terrebonne, who unsuccessfully challenged Greg Walden in the Second Congressional District in 2018, is running, along with political newcomer Ryan Wruck, a Salem office manager. Former GOP State Rep. Rich Vial, who is the deputy secretary of state, has indicated he might run. 

The four candidates debated earlier this month in Sunriver with election security, access to public records, campaign finance and the initiative process emerging as central themes. Those issues are expected to pique elevated voter interest in 2020 in the shadow of foreign election interference, false political advertisements and big-money contributions.

“2020 is going to be all about protecting and securing our democracy,” McLeod-Skinner said, noting she would appoint an election security officer. Hass said Oregon’s paper ballots in mail-in elections make elections here less susceptible to attacks, he would employ the best technology to protect the state’s voter database. Williamson said Oregonians need “to believe it’s the safest [election] system possible” so they believe their votes count. Wruck called for modernizing and simplifying the state election website, though it doesn’t appear to have his own campaign website up and running yet.

The candidates discussed the initiative process in the wake of a state elections division decision to reject initiatives to tighten forestry restrictions. Hass and Williamson said steps are needed to prevent abuse of the initiative process.

Access to public records is expected to become a major issue in the secretary of state campaign. Hass, a former news broadcaster, has proposed reshaping the Public Records Advisory Council to include another member from the news media and more nonprofit representatives to replace government representatives on the 12-member body. “Oregonians expect a secretary of state to be a lighthouse for transparency, accuracy and hard truths,” he says on his campaign website. Sluggish responses and high fees thwart transparency of government decision-making, critics charge.

Williamson, an attorney with previous experience on the executive team of a former superintendent of public instruction, has pegged her candidacy on protecting Oregon elections from “foreign tampering,” increased transparency in campaign finance and combatting climate change through clean energy projects on public lands.

McLeod-Skinner, an attorney and natural resource consultant who has worked in municipal government and serves on the Oregon Watershed Enhancement Board, pledges to work for “secure and fair access to our government,” public record transparency and sustainable management of public lands. 

Political observers expect the race to center on Hass and Williamson. Hass gained statewide recognition for his multi-session work on a business tax that was approved in the 2019 legislative session to generate $1billion annually to finance provisions in the Student Success Act. As House majority leader, Williamson is best known for her work on criminal justice reform and women’s health care issues. The winner would have a leg up in running for governor in 2022. Brown will be term-limited and ineligible to run for re-election.

McLeod-Skinner, who grew up in Ashland and earned her law degree at the University of Oregon, is a bit of a wild card in the race. She ran a credible challenge to Walden and has positioned herself as a “rural Democrat” capable of attracting moderate voter support in parts of the state that can be unattainable for more liberal Willamette Valley candidates. Walden’s decision to retire at the end of this session of Congress may tempt McLeod-Skinner to switch gears and make a second run for the Second Congressional District seat, this time with no incumbent to defeat. 

Senator Jeff Merkley faces re-election in 2020, but so far he has only token Republican opposition and no primary challenger.

 The Jump to the Governor’s Chair

A number of Oregon secretaries of state have moved up to become governor, including most recently Kate Brown.

Tom McCall leveraged familiarity as a news broadcaster on KGW-TV to win election as Oregon Secretary of State in 1964. Two years later, McCall was elected governor.

Tom McCall leveraged familiarity as a news broadcaster on KGW-TV to win election as Oregon Secretary of State in 1964. Two years later, McCall was elected governor.

The first was Frank W. Benson who was elected twice as secretary of state and served for two years concurrently as governor when George Chamberlain resigned to take a seat in the US Senate. Benson died in office in 1911. The second was his successor, Ben Wilson Olcott, who was appointed to fill out the remainder of Benson’s term. He later was appointed to fill out the remainder of Governor James Withycombe’s term after his death.

Frank L. Dunbar, who was born on a ship at sea and grew up in Brooklyn before moving to Astoria to work as a grocery clerk, was elected Oregon secretary of state in 1904. After his election, he studied law and was admitted to the Oregon State Bar. After Dunbar left office, he was convicted of embezzling $100,000. The Oregon Supreme later overturned his conviction.

Prior to Brown, Oregonians who went from secretary of state to the governor’s chair have included Barbara Roberts, Tom McCall and Mark Hatfield. Secretaries of state who ran unsuccessfully for governor include Clay Myers, Norma Paulus and Bill Bradbury. Dennis Richardson ran unsuccessfully for governor, then was elected secretary of state.