Republicans in Oregon have long bemoaned their struggles to develop a deep bench.
These days, they’re struggling to even find a starting five.
Last week, the GOP lost the secretary of state post, Oregon’s second-highest office and the one statewide seat they had managed to capture in recent years. Both Sen. Kim Thatcher, R-Keizer, who ran for secretary of state, and Jeff Gudman, who Republicans backed for state treasurer, were viable candidates who nonetheless lost by wide margins.
In two other major races, Republicans struggled to recruit challengers who realistically had a shot. Jo Rae Perkins, who promoted the QAnon conspiracy theory, was put up against Democratic U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley. The Republican challenger vying for attorney general against incumbent Ellen Rosenblum had no legal background but did have some legal troubles. At the same time, the party has funneled tremendous energy into two unsuccessful recall efforts of Gov. Kate Brown.
And even with last week’s losses, perhaps the most pressing concern for Republicans isn’t the election cycle that just ended — but the one that is just starting. With two years until the next gubernatorial race, it’s already easy to tick off more than a handful of well known Democrats, including Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury, State Treasurer Tobias Read, House Speaker Tina Kotek and Secretary of State-elect Shemia Fagan, to name a few, who have been rumored to be interested in the state’s top job.
On the Republican side, even party loyalists have been reticent to share a list of candidates for governor.
The party has struggled in the past to identify and coalesce behind candidates who are moderate enough to appeal to a statewide audience — yet somehow also manage to not alienate the more right-wing base.
Rep. Daniel Bonham, the Republican deputy leader in the statehouse, said for Republicans it’s more about finding the right individual candidate. Dennis Richardson, the last Republican elected statewide, who died in office while serving as secretary of state, was not considered particularly moderate.
“I don’t think there is one recipe to win statewide,” Bonham said. “What Dennis (Richardson) did, he ran for governor but lost and his name identification was through the roof. He was an incredibly affable and likable man. How do you replicate that unless you’re made of the same cloth? I don’t know that you can repeat that playbook.”
Will changing the message help?
“Republicans are constantly on the defensive” in Oregon," said Rebecca Tweed, a political strategist. “We are constantly the underdog.”
Tweed believes a shift in the party’s messaging would help.
“The only way we gain seats in the Legislature or city council or county commission is influence voters toward policy that makes sense,” Tweed said, rather than pounding the idea that “Democrats are bad guys, and Republicans are the good guys.”
Republicans need to put forward a proactive agenda, Tweed said, one that centers on strong fiscal policies, more transparency and accountability in government and strong environmental policies to protect the state’s natural resources.
Despite taking a hit on some of the more high-profile races, there were some bright spots for the party in this year’s election. Alek Skarlatos, a young political newcomer, ran a credible challenge against veteran U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Springfield, in Oregon’s 4th District congressional race. Skarlatos entered the race better known than most political novices; he helped stop a potential terror attack on a Paris-bound train in 2015, a feat that was made into a movie by Clint Eastwood, and landed him a spot on “Dancing With The Stars.”
Republicans managed to flip three open legislative seats on the Oregon Coast, where Democrats had a voter-registration edge. Preventing Democrats from expanding their majority also means Republicans can still block legislation they don’t agree with by fleeing the building and boycotting votes.
“What divides us more than anything is rural versus urban,” Bonham said. “And I just think that divide is so great, and there is such a misunderstanding about the challenges that face the other constituency … I think outside of Portland, we’ve made good strides with the old blue-dog Democrats, the old JFK Democrats, who believe in a safety net but that believe the state should live within its means … And a lot of those people are showing up.”
And Republicans are finding other reasons to be optimistic.
Former state lawmaker Julie Parrish, who is now a political consultant and was part of Thatcher’s campaign, is a board member of the grassroots group Timber Unity. The group sprung up in an effort to block a bill that would have curbed climate change. But Parrish said Timber Unity has evolved and is getting engaged in a wider range of issues. They are expanding their messaging, spending time with voters in communities to discuss policies they believe are hurting Oregonians.
There is an opportunity for Republicans in Oregon right now, Parrish said, “to have those conversations and get back to what historically we have been really good at … If you look at the Republicans in the ’80s we were focused on the checkbook issues.”
That’s a message Parrish said Republicans plan to revive.
“If Republicans can put together a good platform for working families then I think we’re going to continue to work toward balance in this state. I think it’s absolutely possible,” she said.
Like Bonham, she believes the Democratic Party has moved away from the working-class Democrats who “get their hands a little dirty to make their paychecks,” she said.
And she is hopeful changes to the campaign finance laws could make a difference. Oregon voters decided limiting campaign contributions and spending should be allowed in the state’s constitution this election. The measure contains no actual campaign finance limits, but lawmakers are expected to tackle how to curb cash flowing into races this upcoming session. A move to regulate donations increased in 2018, when the race between Gov. Kate Brown and Republican Knute Buehler netted roughly $40 million in donations. Both candidates received large contributions, with Buehler getting $2.5 million from Nike co-founder Phil Knight.
“You are running up against a machine in this state … Right now, the biggest driver as to why some Republicans don’t engage in some of these statewide races in the sheer cost,” Parrish said. “… Thatcher was outspent by about $2.1 million, and if we are going to get honest campaign finance reform, is that going to stop the flow of money?”
And if that fails, there is always the hope Republicans have long counted on to help them — Democratic overreach.
“I have lived in this state almost all my life,” Parrish said. “I would like my kids to live in this state. They are 8th generation Oregonians. I understand pendulums swing. If Kate (Brown) and Shemia (Fagan) and Tina (Kotek) take us to the furthest bleeding edge of insanity, it will swing back.”