State Rep. Knute Buehler, R-Bend, is already focused on a potential fall election matchup against Democratic Gov. Kate Brown.
His TV advertising focuses on attacking the governor and makes no mention of his Republican affiliation. And on the surface, the May 15 GOP primary might seem like an afterthought for Buehler. He is the only Republican to raise serious money for his campaign – more than $3.1 million at last count – and he has a long list of establishment endorsers.
But you don't have to spend much time in Oregon Republican circles to pick up discontent among party conservatives when it comes to their likely nominee. Pro-life activists are unhappy that Buehler describes himself as pro-choice. Fans of President Donald Trump are upset that he's criticized Trump on several occasions. And gun-rights activists are angry that Buehler recently voted for a bill further tightening Oregon's gun laws.
Sometimes the criticism leveled at Buehler goes way beyond Ronald Reagan’s old dictum about never speaking ill of a fellow Republican.
“If you want Knute, we might as well just keep Kate, in my opinion,” said Carol Leek, founder of Oregon Women for Trump, after hearing Buehler speak at the annual Dorchester Conference for GOP activists.
Buehler’s campaign team remains confident of victory in the Republican primary. But there are 10 candidates in the race and two of them in particular – retired U.S. Navy aviator Greg Wooldridge and Bend businessman Sam Carpenter – appear to be mounting the strongest challenges.
To succeed this election year, Buehler must navigate the shoals of the Republican Party primary, where the electorate tends to be more conservative, while making sure he doesn't say or do anything that hurts his chances in the fall.
That was on display at a recent meeting of the Portland-based Executive Club. Members see themselves as the libertarian resistance to left-wing Portland. The evils of light rail, urban planning and taxes are among their favorite topics.
At a recent meeting, they flung a series of tough questions at Buehler. One man asked Buehler if he would pledge right then not to sign any bill that raises taxes or puts more controls on firearms.
“I won’t make those kinds of pledges,” Buehler replied. “I think they are just too complex, too many issues on the table.”
But, Buehler told his listeners, “your gun rights are safe with me.”
Buehler noted that while he voted for a bill to tighten gun possession laws regarding domestic abusers, he also opposed measures to expand background checks and to allow judges to temporarily remove the gun rights of someone deemed at “extreme risk” of violence.
And he said the state should be focused on efficiencies – such as lowering the cost of the state pension system – instead of raising taxes.
Buehler told another questioner that he wasn’t familiar with a proposed initiative that would prohibit state funding of abortion for low-income women. But he said he opposed state funding except in cases where it is “medically necessary.”
Kerry Tymchuk, a former aide to U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith, said Buehler is seeking to find a formula that allows him to appeal to the nearly three-quarters of registered voters in Oregon who are not Republicans.
“As a Republican in Oregon, you have to thread the needle,” Tymchuk said. “You start off with so many strikes against you.”
He described Buehler’s biggest challenge this way: “Not saying anything that will make him unelectable in November.”
Buehler has long charted his own way in life and politics. The son of a Roseburg butcher and a homemaker, he was the first in his family to go to college. He went to medical school and also studied in England as a Rhodes Scholar. He became an orthopedic surgeon with a thriving practice in Bend.
He first got involved in politics working on Texas billionaire Ross Perot’s third-party presidential campaign in 1992. Then he dabbled in the unsuccessful effort to create a Perot-inspired party to challenge the Democratic-Republican duopoly.
“I’m an independent-minded guy,” he told one questioner at the Executive Club who asked his opinion of President Trump, “and I don’t believe in blind loyalty to anybody but my wife.”
“I’m not interested in passing anyone’s personal litmus test or anyone’s single voting criteria,” Buehler added in a subsequent interview. “I’m interested in fixing the big problems of Oregon that have been avoided or made worse.”
Buehler insisted that he could still get a lot done even if Democrats continue to control the Legislature. “I have a lot of friends on the Democratic side of the aisle,” he said. He noted that some of the most popular governors in the country are Republicans in blue states like Massachusetts, Vermont and Maryland who are adept at building bipartisan coalitions.
Buehler’s willingness to work with Democrats hasn’t always endeared him to the “far right or the core Republican base,” said state Rep. Richard Vial, R-Scholls, a Buehler supporter.
That discontent has helped fuel the candidacies of Wooldridge and Carpenter.
Wooldridge, a former leader of the Navy’s famous Blue Angels aerial stunt team, initially rejected getting into the race last summer. However, he said he came to see it as “another call to duty” and began his campaign in February. He soon won the endorsement of Oregon Right to Life, the anti-abortion group that is an important force in the state’s Republican politics.
Wooldridge is still getting up to speed on the issues affecting state government. When he entered the race, he acknowledged he was receiving briefings to learn about Oregon’s pension problems – an issue Buehler can discuss in detail.
But supporters say Wooldridge’s charisma and 27 years of military service – which happens to be about as long as Brown has been in elective office – would make him an effective contrast to Gov. Brown in a general election.
In his stump speeches, Wooldridge leans heavily on his experience with the Blue Angels and in running the sprawling Naval Air Station Lemoore in California. You can hear echoes of his current work as a motivational speaker as he campaigns:
“The State of Oregon is in a tailspin and the pilot has bailed out,” Wooldridge said at the Dorchester Conference. “She's floating nice and softly in her silk parachute right down to the ground while the state goes into the abyss.”
The crowd ate it up and he won the conference straw poll over Buehler. He also came within one vote of defeating Buehler in a similar poll conducted by the Washington County Republican Party.
Wooldridge said he’s more conservative than Buehler. But when he was asked in an interview for the major reason why he would be a better GOP nominee, he replied: “I’m not sure he has that ability to inspire, and I feel that I do.”
Still, Wooldridge has struggled to raise money. When he got in the race, he said he planned to raise about $750,000 for the primary race. So far, he’s reported collecting only about $200,000, and he now says he won't meet his previous goal.
Carpenter presents a more hard-edged contrast to Buehler. He owns a telephone answering service and a business consulting firm and wraps himself tightly in Trump's image, right down to his slogan: "Make Oregon Great Again."
“I’m a CEO, we fix and build,” Carpenter said. “This is what I like about Donald Trump. He’s a fixer and a builder, and he gets it done.”
Carpenter has built a large following on Facebook – he says he spends long hours replying to people who engage him over the internet – and paid for a poll he says shows him basically tied with Buehler.
“The reason I finally decided to run is that I know Knute Buehler cannot win the general election,” Carpenter said. “And that’s because the Republican base won’t come out. We need 100 percent of our base. The pro-choice thing, the I-don’t-like-our-president thing, is going to kill him.”
This is Carpenter’s second try for statewide office. He unsuccessfully sought the GOP nomination to run against U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., in 2016. He talks a big game, though. He says it’s not enough for the Republicans to win the governorship. They also need to gain a “red trifecta” by winning both the state House and Senate, which are both now in Democratic hands.
Buehler said he is not going to “out-conservative” all of his rivals and wants voters to see this as a race about electability.
“If you want to get down to the brass tacks with regards to politics,” he said, “I am the most conservative person who can win in the state of Oregon.”
There are seven other candidates in the race running with varying degrees of impact.
Bruce Cuff, a real estate agent who lives in rural Marion County, also ran in the 2016 GOP gubernatorial primary. He supports a down-the-line conservative agenda, from eliminating business taxes to returning land-use decisions to the local level.
Jeff Smith is a computer programmer from Fairview who said he can make inroads in the Portland area. David Stauffer ran as a Democrat in 2016 before switching parties. He calls himself an “environmental invention innovator” who in the Oregon Voters’ Pamphlet promotes “four new innovations that are workable, scientific solutions to the environmental problems of Oregon.”
The other four candidates in the race did not pay to place statements in the voters pamphlet. They are Keenan Bohach, a Keizer farmer; Jonathan I. Edwards III, a Gresham member of the Laborer’s Union; Brett Hyland of Portland, who lists no occupation; and Jack Tacy, a Lebanon equipment manager.