Republican lawmakers and party members gathered indoors Feb. 21 at a VFW hall in Salem to decide on a new direction for their party in Oregon. Few, if any, people wore masks.
The meeting came at a time of soul searching in the conservative movement nationwide, as the failed insurrection of Jan. 6 has forced party leaders to confront the reality of extremists and anti-democratic voices within their ranks.
But instead of turning away from those voices, political leadership in Oregon embraced fringe conservatives. The party voted to unseat chairman Bill Currier — a vocal Trump supporter — and replace him with Sen. Dallas Heard, a Republican from Myrtle Creek known for aligning with extremist causes.
The state party chairman has no role in the legislative process and limited influence in the party, but Heard’s election signals a kind of doubling down on the toxic rhetoric that frothed ahead of Jan. 6.
Just five years ago, Heard was criticized by members of his own party for meeting with armed militants who took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in a 41-day standoff.
More recently, he encouraged far right protesters to break into the Oregon Capitol building while it was closed to the public. Heard stood outside the statehouse with a group of protesters Dec. 21, called his fellow lawmakers “fools,” and told the crowd: “I’m in full support of your right to enter your Capitol building.”
Oregon Legislator Dallas Heard goes into the crowd without a mask and rouses them against “the enemy” in the Capitol pic.twitter.com/xnmFcRu55t— Sergio Olmos (@MrOlmos) January 6, 2021
The crowd did break into the building that day, smashing windows and doors, before tangling with Oregon State Police. Some of those same far right activists would go on to participate in the violence of Jan. 6.
What this change in tactics shows is that, at a time when the party is struggling to stay relevant in political decisions, Republicans in Oregon have, at times, turned to some of the same methods used by street activists to belie their small numbers.
Changing of the guard
The blending of the far right into Republican Party politics has been ongoing for years. Small militant groups like the Proud Boys, Patriot Prayer and various militias have at times acted as muscle for conservative rallies throughout Oregon and Washington.
In 2017, the Multnomah Republican Party hired members of the Three Percent and Oath Keepers militias to provide security at their events.
But the frequency with which the party has embraced once fringe characters did not slow in the time before or since Jan. 6, as heated talk spilled into violent actions.
At the same Dec. 21 rally where Heard seemingly encouraged demonstrators to break into the Capitol, his colleague Rep. Mike Nearman appeared to let those same activists in through a side door to the building. Nearman lost a great deal of his political power for that action, as House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, stripped him of his committee assignments.
But within the Republican Party, Nearman heard no calls for his resignation. In fact, at the same meeting where Heard was elected party leader, Nearman chief of staff Becky Mitts was able to fend off a challenge for party secretary, showing just how little blowback the Polk County representative and those close to him faced within the party.
“While Trumpism was removed from the White House on Election Day, the social movement that has formed around Trumpism … they are very much with us,” said Eric Ward, executive director of the nonprofit Western States Center, a group that works to support democratic processes.
“If the events of Jan. 6, if the events of the last 18 months, are not enough to convince you that white nationalism is a threat to democracy, I don’t think anything will convince you,” Ward said.
A smaller but more extreme party
Ward sees the mainstreaming of far right and white nationalist ideals and methods as an issue that goes beyond former President Trump.
He said he sees far right groups splitting into two anti-democratic forces: a smaller militant group that’s committed to violence and intimidation, and a larger group seeking to take over the GOP. In Oregon, the lines between those groups became less clear in recent years.
Small groups like the Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer have shown a willingness to use extreme tactics to tie up much larger crowds of counterprotesters and police. At times, their protests have been able to suspend the business in the core of large cities like Portland with the presence of just a few hundred people.
On Aug. 16, 2019, the Proud Boys rallied in Portland to do just that. Proud Boys leaders Enrique Tarrio and Joe Biggs, who is currently facing charges for the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, rallied a group of several hundred Proud Boys to march through the streets of Portland looking to brawl with antifascists. Though the group was significantly outnumbered, streets and bridges near downtown were closed for much of the day, and the group received a police escort away from counterprotesters as a way to prevent violence.
“We’ve wasted all their fucking resources to make this rally,” Tarrio said in a speech captured on video. “We want [the city of Portland] to waste $2 million, and we’ll do it again in two months.”
The city has spent millions in policing in recent years to respond to protests from the political right and left.
Now, Oregonians who are seemingly less extreme than Tarrio are joining in asymmetric attacks on democracy like the events at the U.S. Capitol. David Medina, founder of Oregonians for Trump, is one such figure. Medina stood alongside Heard on Dec. 21 before storming the Oregon Capitol himself. In a video broadcast Jan. 6, Medina also can be seen inside the U.S. Capitol breaking what appears to be House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office nameplate. He then shouted to a camera crew about his frustrations with the Nov. 3 election while standing next to a man wearing a “camp Auschwitz” sweatshirt.
“This isn’t just like a fringe movement anymore,” said Cassie Miller, a senior researcher with the Southern Poverty Law Center. “This is sort of the mass radicalization of the Trump base.”
The streets to the statehouse
It’s been more than a decade since Republicans had a majority in either house of Oregon’s state government. A declining influence on state politics can also be seen through proportions of registered voters affiliated with each party. In 2006, Republicans and Democrats had almost an equal share of voters statewide, about 36% of Oregonians called themselves Republican compared to 38% who called themselves Democrats.
Today, that number has shrunk to around 25% for Republicans, while Democrats still hold favor with around 35% of voters. As Democratic majorities grew in the statehouse since 2011, elected Republicans have tried unusual methods to hold on to power.
As recently as Thursday, Republican lawmakers shut down the Senate session by refusing to show up. They said they were protesting Gov. Kate Brown’s extension of COVID-19 safety protocols.
It marked the fourth time since 2019 Republicans have halted the lawmaking process as a form of protest.
Without the votes to pass or stop legislation on their own, Republican lawmakers in Oregon have remained relevant in the process, in part, by preventing a quorum needed to conduct legislative business.
House speaker Tina Kotek has called the tactic “a crisis for our democracy.”
In the same way that Republicans have been increasingly willing to use the “nuclear option” to make their presence felt during the COVID-19 pandemic, armed extremists have shown up outside restaurants, hospitals and other public spaces to threaten and intimidate government officials trying to enforce lawfully-enacted health and safety rules.
Heard, the Oregon GOP leader, has himself backed a group called “Citizens against Tyranny,” which targeted Oregonians who filed online complaints against businesses defying COVID-19 restrictions, including two Douglas County women who were put on a list called “filthy traitors.”
This week, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration of Oregon issued fines for two restaurants in Florence, Oregon, that were breaking COVID-19 rules earlier this year. In both cases, OSHA inspectors reported threats of violence against them for trying to do their jobs.
While the tactic did not save the restaurants from the fines, much as lawmaker walkouts have not halted the legislative process permanently, it did serve the purpose of slowing the process.
Still, not all Republicans in the state support the shift. In November, activists similarly tried to intimidate an OSHA inspector by releasing their home address to the public and protesting their house. Keizer Republican Rep. Bill Post took to Facebook.
“Are we now antifa? BLM Black Bloc? We now ‘dox’ a state worker ... I am ashamed of anyone involved in this,” he wrote.
Some within the conservative movement are also trying to counter extremism by encouraging activists to participate in local elections.
“I think there are extremists like the Proud Boys and antifa who just really don’t believe in the democratic processes,” said Richard Burke, executive director of Western Liberty Network, a nonprofit that trains people on the process of running for office.
Burke admits that most of the attendees and speakers at his workshops are conservatives, but he said Western Liberty Network is open to anyone. He said he thinks bringing people into the process of government can help people at the fringes better understand democracy and move away from extremist activities.
“We train people on how to run and how to look for positions that nobody filed for, things like cemetery control boards, school boards, parks and rec, water boards,” Burke said.
Burke sees people turning to extremism when they feel like they don’t have control over the decisions that affect their community. Western Liberty Network’s focus on hyperlocal offices can give people a clear path to feel “empowered,” Burke said. “They have some control over what happens in their lives.”
Still, running for government offices may not be a cure all.
Knute Buehler, one of Oregon’s most prominent Republicans and former candidate for governor, went as far as changing his voter registration to independent earlier this month after the state GOP passed a resolution calling the insurrection at the Capitol a “false flag.”
“I don’t even know what a Republican means anymore,” Buehler told KGW.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect lawmakers and Republican party members both gathered to vote on the election of party leaders Feb. 21.