What remains of the Oregon Republican establishment gathered this weekend for what may be the last Dorchester Conference in Seaside while pondering how they would fare this fall with Donald Trump at the head of the GOP ticket.
In the last three decades, Republicans have gone from dominating most statewide offices in Oregon to failing to win any of them at all. The annual Dorchester Conference, which mainly attracted the middle-of-the-road Republicans who won most of those offices, has shrunk to the point that the leaders now plan to move the event to Salem next year in hopes of finding a bigger audience.
But Republicans are also nervous about whether voters are ready to give them another look given the highly polarizing candidacy of Donald Trump, who has seized a commanding lead in the primary season over the furious objections of such Republican stalwarts as 2012 nominee Mitt Romney.
Tom Simpson, an insurance company executive and president of the Dorchester board, said he understands how Democrats could politically tie Trump to the Oregon Republican candidates and make it hard for them to reach out to Independents and Democrats.
“It’s an easy hit piece to write, right? You’re like this guy and this guy is a nut,” Simpson said. “And then you mail that to every swing voter in the district and you’re done. Your election is over. Because you’re all of a sudden associated with people who are saying such outrageous things. And let’s be honest, Trump is saying outrageous things.”It was hard to find a major Republican candidate attending the conference who favored Trump for the presidency. Instead, most appeared to support Gov. John Kasich, the most moderate candidate left in the Republican presidential race.
But it was also hard to find one who was ready to make a clear break from Trump.
“All you can say as a Republican is it’s hard to imagine that a Republican isn’t going to support the Republican nominee,” said Bud Pierce, a Salem oncologist running for governor. “From our standpoint, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton are just not acceptable.”
Lake Oswego businessman Allen Alley, Pierce’s main competitor for the Republican nomination, said he wasn’t ready to say whether he’d support Trump. “We’ll cross that bridge when we have a nominee.”
Jeff Gudman, a Lake Oswego councilman running unopposed for the Republican nomination for state treasurer, noted that Republican turnout has been up so far in the primaries and said that Trump may be attracting a lot of people who don’t normally vote.
“It’s been very appalling to me where we’ve had some of the talking over each other, some of the vulgarity of language,” Gudman said. “I mean, that is not the party of Lincoln.”
House Minority Leader Mike McLane, R-Powell Butte, said he’s not clear that Republican legislative candidates would be hurt or helped by a Trump nomination.
“If it turns out to be Donald Trump,” McLane said, “I certainly am going to have to ask myself, like a lot of Oregonians, who do we want to see as president, Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump … I don’t want to see Hillary Clinton as president. So in that instance, I’d probably vote for Donald Trump.”