Oregon’s Dorchester Conference, the state’s oldest continuing political gathering, is on the move again.
Former U.S. Sen. Bob Packwood started the event in 1965 as a forum for Republicans to discuss issues and to network. Through the decades it has attracted numerous national political figures, but the event has more recently had attendance problems as Republicans have struggled to be competitive in state elections.
This year’s event will begin Friday at the Resort at the Mountain in Welches, about an hour east of Portland. For decades, Dorchester was held in Seaside, but it was moved to Salem in 2017.
Wayne Trosino, the current Dorchester president, said the Salem move didn’t work as well as hoped. “We wanted to get back to the small-town homey feel and thought that Welches was a great place to do it,” he said.
The conference, which operates independently of the Oregon Republican Party, will stick largely to its traditional format this year. It will include issue discussions on gun rights and the state’s public pension system, hear a pep talk from GOP Congressman Greg Walden and hold its satirical “tent show.” However, Trosino said organizers decided this year not to spend money bringing in big-name speakers from out of state.
Fox News talk-show host Tucker Carlson and longtime GOP operative Roger Stone both spoke in recent years, but Trosino said neither appeared to help drive attendance.
In its heyday, the conference often attracted more than 500 people, but in recent years it has appeared to be only around half that. This year, the conference’s website says it is only allowing up to 200 registrants.
But Trosino said the resort’s ballroom can exceed that limit and he won’t turn away prospective attendees.
Tom Simpson was Dorchester president in 2016 when the board decided to move from Seaside to Salem.
He said that many attendees were finding it harder to afford the cost of going out to the coast for the weekend. And it was also getting more difficult to attract GOP legislators, particularly since there are now so few of them in the Portland area and the rest of northwest Oregon.
By moving the event to Salem, Simpson said organizers hoped it would be easier for legislators to attend.
And they also hoped it would be easier for people to attend, particularly nearby college students.
Last year, however, the last day of the conference coincided with the end of the legislative session.
And instead of hanging out at Dorchester, legislators were largely stuck in the Capitol slogging through a flurry of last-minute bills. The conference has been now moved back from its traditional date in early March.
That will avoid conflicts with the short legislative session in even years. And Trosino said it offers the hope of better weather.
In addition to Walden, the featured speakers include Sandy Mayor Stan Pulliam, Sandy resident Todd Hoffman, who starred in eight seasons of the TV show “Gold Rush,” and Roseburg resident Alek Skarlatos, who helped stop a terrorist attack on a train in France in 2015.
Historically, the conference often leaned more to the political middle, particularly when GOP moderates often won statewide seats from the 1960s through the 1980s.
In 2014, social conservatives held their own rally in Portland on the same weekend as Dorchester after expressing anger that the conference asked attendees to vote on whether to support gay marriage.
Dorchester attendees voted in favor of that proposition.
Conservatives still hold their own event but now make sure it doesn’t conflict with Dorchester. And Dorchester now seems well within the main currents of the GOP.