Oregon Rep. Knute Buehler of Bend on Thursday became the first major candidate to officially announce his candidacy for governor.
Democratic Gov. Kate Brown is widely expected to run again, but she’s turned aside questions about her political plans for 2018.
Here are four big questions to keep in mind as we enter the early stages of next year’s campaign for governor.
Can Buehler revive the Republican money machine?
Oregon Republicans can out-raise the Democrats when they have the right candidate and real prospects of winning. And many figures in the Republican and business establishment think Buehler is that candidate.
“He has the possibility of putting the Republican financial machine back together,” said Jim Pasero, a Republican political consultant in Lake Oswego. He noted that centrist GOP gubernatorial candidates Ron Saxton in 2006 and Chris Dudley in 2010 out-raised their Democratic rivals. Both Republicans lost, however, but Dudley came within 1.5 points of winning.
Like Saxton and Dudley, Buehler has sought to build an image that captures the broad middle in Oregon politics.
He’s a successful orthopedic surgeon who has put together a medical business he says employs more than 200 people. His House District has a Democratic registration edge and he has worked on such issues as easing access to contraceptives. Buehler has also described himself as pro-choice on abortion.
Buehler has repeatedly distanced himself from President Donald Trump, too. In May, he wrote a Facebook post calling for a full independent investigation of the president’s actions in office.
Buehler said in his announcement Thursday that he wants to help people “who have been left behind, left out or lost hope in the future.”
But Democrats are already trying to tarnish the Republican’s image.
Jillian Schoene is a political consultant who worked for Brown’s 2012 re-election campaign as secretary of state against none other than Buehler.
“She beat him before and she’ll beat him again,” said Schoene, who now runs a training program for Democratic women candidates.
Schoene and other Democrats say they will hammer Buehler for his votes against tax bills raising money for transportation and low-income health care. And they’ll particularly point to his vote against a bill guaranteeing broad access to reproductive care, including abortion.
How will voters view Kate Brown?
Republicans say they see weaknesses in Brown’s stewardship of state government over the last 2.5 years.
“There’s been failure after failure after failure,” said Rep. Julie Parrish, R-West Linn, who is also a political adviser to Secretary of State Dennis Richardson.
Parrish, like many other Republicans, accuse Brown of doing little to solve Oregon’s chronic budget problems.
They say the governor has failed to reduce the state's growing public pension debt or do much to lower high health care costs for public employees. And they say the state seems to lurch from crisis to crisis, ranging from the troubled foster care system to low high school graduation rates.
Brown defends her efforts to tackle the public employee pension debt and stabilize school funding. And beyond that, she talks up the state’s job growth — eighth highest in the country last year — and her commitment to expanding health coverage to everyone in the state.
“[U]nder my leadership, in Oregon we will continue to be a progressive leader for the country,” Brown said in a recent interview with The Washington Post, which portrayed her as a leader of one of the most “anti-Trump" states.
One of the keys to next year’s campaign — assuming Brown does indeed run for re-election — is what narrative of the governor has a strongest hold on voters.
What will be the national driving force in the 2018 elections?
Buehler resisted pleas to run against Brown in 2016. That’s when she stood for election to the last two years of the term of former Gov. John Kitzhaber, who resigned in 2015.
Buehler didn’t want to run in a presidential election year, when turnout in Oregon generally skews more Democratic.
That looked like a good bet when Democrat Hillary Clinton was expected to win the presidential race.
Republicans then thought 2018 would be a strong off-year election for them — just as it was in 2010 and President Barack Obama faced his first midterm. In Oregon that year, Dudley came very close to breaking the Democratic win streak in gubernatorial elections as Republicans made major gains in the Legislature.
But that’s not so clear now that Democrats are fired up in their anger over Trump, whose approval rating is below 40 percent in Oregon.
Oregon Democratic Chairwoman Jeanne Atkins said her party has plenty of lines of criticism against Buehler. But she also added that "we will be holding Republicans accountable” for Trump and for the Republican record leading Congress.
Pasero, the Republican consultant, said it’s possible 2018 could be a more difficult year for his party in Oregon than it was in 2016.
“That’s the danger,” he said. “Is the storyline going to be that the West Coast is the heart of the Trump resistance, or that Kate Brown is a failed governor?”
Who else will join the governor’s race?
It would be a huge political shock if Brown decides not to run again. From raising money to honing her rhetoric, she appears like a candidate.
On the Republican side, Happy Valley Mayor Lori Chavez DeRemer is exploring a run for governor and said she expects to soon announce her decision.
The biggest question mark is Secretary of State Dennis Richardson, who last year became the first Republican to win statewide office in Oregon since 2002.
Besides having notched that victory, Richardson is also a favorite of many Republican conservatives.
Gayle Atteberry, executive director of Oregon Right to Life, says she is urging Richardson to run, in part because of her group’s unhappiness with Buehler.
“Buehler’s not pro-life, that’s all there is to it,” said Atteberry, who wasn’t happy he accepted the group’s help in his 2014 legislative race and then later played up his support for abortion rights.
Buehler supporters hope Richardson is just trying to keep his name in the news by not ruling out a gubernatorial candidacy at this time. But there’s no doubt he could scramble the primary race if he gets in.