We’re all familiar with the underground economy. Favors or services are exchanged without money or formal records, skirting taxes or other liabilities. There’s another hidden economy operating above us, where favors are swapped but tracks are not left. Just for symmetry’s sake, let’s call it the overcloud economy.
You wouldn’t believe how often the overcloud economy shapes seating charts at Washington’s elite events. A ticket to a presidential inauguration cannot be bought, but the best seats are being procured using this invisible economy. You want a front-row seat for a Supreme Court session or a private nighttime tour of the Capitol building? You need somebody there who owes you a favor.
This better than anything else may explain why Lane County Commissioner Faye Stewart has agreed to run for the U.S. Senate against incumbent Ron Wyden. Nobody expects Stewart to beat Oregon’s senior senator, but that may not be the goal.
The 2016 election could harness a wave of voter discontent that leaves no incumbent safe, but even Stewart himself doesn’t consider that scenario very likely. Wyden has made a name for himself by crossing the partisan aisle and crafting innovative solutions. His support is anchored in Portland, where Stewart is almost entirely unknown.
An outsized ego can sometimes lure a politician into a delusional campaign, but anyone who has ever spent five minutes with Stewart knows he doesn’t fit that profile. And anyone who’s ever spent five minutes with Wyden knows that he won’t go down without a fight. So what’s in it for Stewart? Nobody knows, but I can make some guesses.
U.S. Rep. Greg Walden is charged with recruiting Republicans across the country to run and raise money, so he may have called in a favor from Stewart.
We know Stewart cares about his community. He has seen first hand what the declining timber payments have wrought over the last decade. Walden may have promised some Republican-sponsored legislation that will help balance the county’s books in some more sustainable fashion than Democrats have been able to offer.
Let’s stop for a moment and remind ourselves of a new but increasingly self-evident truth. Elections — especially in presidential election years — have become a pursuit of dollars as much as votes. Dollars are not contained into their states or Congressional districts of origin. Money is fungible, but still limited.
Every dollar Wyden raises to keep his seat is one less dollar that can be spent on more competitive races. Remember how the Oregon Ducks often used De’Anthony Thomas as a decoy to frustrate opposing defenses? The best defender would cover him, while the Ducks attacked the other ten players on the other side of the field.
In the same way, Stewart can earn favors from the Republican party simply by forcing Wyden’s campaign to raise and spend money that could otherwise have been directed elsewhere.
If a Republican wins the White House, that brings with it hundreds of political appointments. These are virtual chits in the overcloud economy. Stewart wouldn’t enjoy being the ambassador to Morocco, but he might covet a position with the U.S. Forestry Dept. or the Bureau of Land Management, where he could help shape a new national timber policy.
Oregon roots don’t go deeper than Stewart’s, so you can bet any favors he’s earning will be cashed close to home. Whatever future political ambitions he may have will be made easier if he has statewide name recognition and essential Portland fundraising connections. Walden can make those important introductions.
Stewart and dozens of others are wondering how much longer U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio will continue to endure the nation’s longest business commute. When he retires, there will be a scramble in both parties for what will certainly be a competitive race.
Anyone who has run a statewide campaign will have some advantages when that moment comes. That will give Stewart more stature, even if he has to lose a race to get it.
You never can be sure how much anything is really worth in the overcloud economy, but I’ve heard the nighttime Capitol tour is really cool.
Don Kahle (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs at www.dksez.com.