Knute Buehler

Knute Buehler

Michael Clapp / OPB

In many states, Republicans in this primary season have competed with each other to show who best exemplifies down-the-line conservatism and support for President Donald Trump.

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In Oregon, state Rep. Knute Buehler expresses confidence that he’s headed toward a strong victory in the Republican governor primary despite his willingness to criticize Trump and diverge from conservative orthodoxy.

“We’re clearly going to win this primary election on Tuesday,” Buehler said in an interview. “There’s all indications that we’re going to have a good win and be ready for the general election.”

Buehler’s two chief rivals – Bend businessman Sam Carpenter and retired Naval aviator Greg Wooldridge – both say Buehler has failed to win over the GOP rank-and-file. They insist he could be in for a shock Tuesday.

Carpenter, who has styled himself as Trump’s big champion in Oregon, said it became clear to him that he’s getting close to victory when Buehler suddenly launched an advertising and social media attack on him last week.

“He’s panicked,” said Carpenter, insisting that “we’re so strong we’re going to overwhelm” the other candidates on Election Day.

Wooldridge is also not ruling himself out.

“Most of the base of the Republican Party, I believe, is aligned more with my message,” he said, “emphatically more than it is with Knute’s.”

Oregon Democrats – eager to take Buehler down a notch — are also chiming in. They promoted a poll done by a Democratic firm showing Buehler with an 8-point lead over Carpenter.

“Buehler has definitely not locked this up,” Oregon Democratic Chairwoman Jeanne Atkins told reporters Thursday.

The Oregon race has felt different than Republican primaries in many states this year. In Ohio, for example, the leading GOP candidates for governor — Attorney General Mike DeWine and Lt. Gov. Mary Taylor — ran attack ads against each other over who would best follow the Trump agenda on issues like immigration.

Taylor’s ads featured her standing next to Trump while accusing her opponent of having a suspiciously liberal voting record when he was in Congress.  DeWine emerged victorious on May 8 after assuring voters he was a “rock-solid conservative” who supported Trump’s border wall.

Unlike Ohio, Oregon is not a state that often veers between electing Republicans and Democrats.

Related: Buehler Airs Ad Hitting Republican Rival Carpenter Over Tax Liens

As a result, Buehler has tailored his campaign to a state that hasn’t backed a GOP presidential candidate since Ronald Reagan and in recent decades has rarely elected Republicans to statewide office at all.

An orthopedic surgeon from Bend, Buehler calls himself “fiercely independent.” He avoided hot-button Republican issues like immigration or supporting Trump in his primary advertising.  Instead, he focused his copious TV ads on what he says are the leadership failures of Democratic Gov. Kate Brown, areas ranging from education to the multi-billion-dollar deficit facing Oregon’s public employee retirement system.

In interviews, Buehler’s walked a line between saying he’d work with the Democrats who run the Legislature and vowing to play hardball with them.

One promise he’s repeatedly made during the primary season is to refuse to sign any bill for new taxes or programs until the Legislature gives him a package of changes reducing the cost of the pension system.

“That is the leverage point that I will have to force this change through,” he said.

Wooldridge and Carpenter have not been able to compete with Buehler when it comes to advertising. Each has raised less than a tenth of the $3.5 million that Buehler has amassed, meaning Buehler has been virtually unchallenged on the airwaves. He has spent $2 million – mostly on advertising – since the start of the year.

Democrats say his heavy spending is a sign of how much difficulty he’s had getting through the primary.

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Atkins, the Democratic chairwoman, said Buehler has been “emptying his coffers trying to seal this deal.”

Financial disclosure reports show that Buehler now has just about $600,000 in his campaign fund. Brown, in comparison, is sitting on a $3.7 million bank account.

Buehler countered that “this was a part of the strategy from the very beginning.”  He said that the pre-primary campaign was a good time to communicate with all voters – not just Republicans. And he said he was confident he can rebuild his campaign fund after the primary.

Meanwhile, Buehler’s GOP opponents are trying to find lower-cost ways to get their message out.

Carpenter, who owns a telephone answering company in Bend, has tried to build up his own following on Facebook and other social media. He plays up his early support of Trump and has been freewheeling in his attacks on Buehler.

“Knute Buehler’s nomination means your Second Amendment rights will be under attack,” Carpenter recently said on Facebook, “and unrestricted abortion will continue. Sanctuary cities, high taxes and over-regulation? There will be no change.”

These attacks did eventually draw a response from Buehler. In a radio ad and mailer, he charged that Carpenter couldn’t be trusted because he and his businesses had been hit with a series of state and federal tax liens.

Buehler insisted that he didn’t go on the offensive against Carpenter because of fear that the businessman was a real threat to win the race.

“It’s about leadership,” said Buehler. “When you see inappropriate comments, bullying behavior … it’s time to speak up and say, ‘This is not appropriate.’”

Critics of Carpenter charged that his campaign manager made crude comments about a Wooldridge aide who is gay. He was also criticized for incorrectly listing the parent university of a New York technical school where he received an associate of arts degree.

Eventually, Carpenter put together an “accusations” page on his website in an attempt to refute the charges. But that also got him in more hot water.

Carpenter said on that page that he had been accepted into the Army to serve in the special forces – but that he wasn’t able to complete his enlistment because a background check turned up a minor misdemeanor.

When critics pointed out Carpenter couldn’t join the special forces until he completed basic training, he changed it to remove the reference to the elite branch of the military.

Carpenter said the attacks are much ado about nothing. Records show he eventually paid his late taxes. And he said he never tried to claim he had military experience.

In many ways, Carpenter, 68, is open about his troubled past, much of it chronicled in a 2014 book he wrote about how he turned his business around. He said he was an aimless young adult who used drugs, struggled in his career and was divorced four times.

“I had a nightmare of a life until I was 50,” he said.

Wooldridge had a very different career trajectory that, at the age of 71, has taken him into his first political race. He was in the Navy for 27 years, most notably serving as the leader of the Blue Angels stunt team.

He first attracted political attention in Oregon as a delegate to the 2008 Republican convention, where he was a strong supporter of Sen. John McCain, also a former Naval aviator.

Several Republicans tried to recruit him to run for governor last summer, seeing him as a more charismatic alternative to Buehler. Wooldridge, in the process of a divorce, turned down those pleas.

But in February, Wooldridge suddenly entered the contest and quickly won the support of Oregon Right to Life, the state’s largest anti-abortion group. He also got a $100,000 donation from a company connected to a California developer, but the money quickly dried up after that.

He’s only had one limited TV ad buy, for a spot that focuses on imagery of his military service.  On the campaign trail, Wooldridge talks up his record three tours as a leader of the Blue Angels and his leadership of a large naval air station in California.

“Oregon needs someone,” he said, “who has demonstrated the ability to build strong teams, lead them, inspire them and put out clear expectations for accountability.”

Carpenter said Wooldridge’s only accomplishment has been to split the conservative vote.  “He should drop out,” he said. “Why Wooldridge stays in is a mystery to me.”

Wooldridge dismissed polls showing him far back in third. He said he thinks he presents a “pragmatic conservative” alternative to Buehler and Carpenter.

Republicans who haven’t voted yet will finally have a chance Friday to compare the three GOP candidates. Buehler has avoided debates with the other candidates. But he has agreed to participate in a three-way debate at 1 p.m. Friday, hosted by conservative talk show host Lars Larson in the KXL studio in Portland.

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