Oregon Republicans knew all along that they faced a difficult political environment, but they’re still feeling rocked by last November’s elections.
“We were wiped out,” said Bud Pierce, a Salem oncologist and 2016 candidate for Oregon governor. “We were just annihilated. I mean, you have people in swing districts – Vial, Parrish, strong candidates, incumbents, just pushed aside.”
Incumbent state Reps. Rich Vial of Wilsonville and Julie Parrish of West Linn were among the big GOP losses in the legislative races that gave Democrats supermajorities in both chambers. Despite spending a record amount of nearly $20 million, Knute Buehler lost big to Democratic Gov. Kate Brown.
“Donald Trump is very unpopular to many Oregonians — and they came out to vote against him,” said Pierce, who worries Republicans will face the same dynamic during next year’s presidential election.
As Republicans fret about how and whether they can climb out of their political hole, the Oregon Republican Party will meet Saturday in Keizer to elect their leadership.
The current chairman, Bill Currier, is a soft-spoken information technology consultant from Benton County who is making a rare bid for continuity: He’s seeking a third, two-year term. Before him, the party ran through three chairs in just four years.
Currier is being challenged by Bend businessman Sam Carpenter, who finished second to Buehler in last year’s GOP gubernatorial primary. Carpenter is a strong supporter of President Trump who says much of the conventional wisdom about the GOP’s troubles in Oregon is wrong.
“We don’t need to lean left to win elections,” he said. “In fact, that has been the problem.”
Carpenter recently wrote a 284-page book pressing his case against the party leadership. One of his big conclusions: State party leaders should have intervened in the gubernatorial primary, denouncing Buehler for running negative ads against Carpenter and for criticizing Trump, among other things. He said that as party chairman, he’d like to help recruit and promote grassroots conservatives.
Carpenter argues they’d do better both with GOP voters and with Democratic and non-affiliated “quiet Trumpsters” who he says secretly side with the president. In many ways, he said, the real divide in the state is between establishment elites and what he calls the “country class” of average Oregonians.
Currier said party leadership can’t decide who runs for office and must be wary about getting involved in primaries.
“And that helps the party how?” he asked of Carpenter’s suggestion. “You know if we want to turn our guns inward, that’s like a sports team focusing its energy on each other instead of moving the ball down the field.”
Margie Hughes, a former executive director for the party, said Carpenter’s challenge is reminiscent of episodic moves by grassroots activists to take over the party structure from candidates more tied to the establishment.
“Each time it’s been a disaster,” she said, “and we have to rebuild.”
Hughes and many other Republicans argue that what ails the GOP in Oregon goes deeper than debate about Trump or about the party organization.
They say it instead has more to do with how the state’s population has changed.
“So many people have moved here,” said Bridget Barton, a Republican political consultant from West Linn, “and almost to a person they are very liberal.”
While there’s some hyperbole in that statement, she said the changing economy – and Portland’s national reputation as a lifestyle magnet – has tended to attract voters disinclined to support Republicans. The party’s share of registered voters has now dropped to just a quarter of the electorate. The Democratic share has also dropped as more voters are now unaffiliated – but the Democrats have a big 170,000-vote edge.
Barton made her points in an article in a newsletter, Oregon Transformation, that has been getting buzz in conservative circles.
“The majority of Oregon voters truly believe in very liberal values,” Barton wrote. “And what’s even more important for us to comprehend: For many voters, that's exactly why they moved here. They are blue enough, progressive enough, wacko leftist enough, committed Democrat enough to pack their bags, leave home, and move to Oregon to live among their comrades.”
Barton said the longer that Republicans have continued to lose – particularly in high-profile state races – the harder it has become to attract strong talent to participate in campaigns. And that in turn makes winning even more difficult.
Many Republicans say their best hope for redemption may actually lie in the hands of Democrats.
House Minority Leader Carl Wilson, R-Grants Pass, said the GOP is largely powerless to stop Democrats from enacting their agenda during this session. And he said that could wind up facing a backlash from voters if they feel Democrats go too far in raising taxes and regulations.
“If they continue to over-reach and we find that some of the policies they have invested themselves in so deeply don’t work,” Wilson said, “I think therein lies a chance for Republicans to have a comeback.”