Election 2020

How Moderate Does a Republican Have to Be to Win Statewide in Oregon?

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I read with interest a recent Oregonian article about Republican state Representative Knute Buehler’s positioning as a potential gubernatorial candidate: “Likely Oregon GOP governor candidate backs investigation of Trump: ‘We need to know the truth.’”

Representative Buehler was characterized as a moderate due to his support for greater access to birth control and his Facebook post affirming his support for the investigation into possible collusion between President Donald Trump’s campaign and the Russians. Buehler supported Ohio Governor John Kasich in the 2016 election.

Dr. Buehler, an orthopedic surgeon representing the Central Oregon city of Bend, also recently received criticism from the Oregon Firearms Federation after joining with an anti-gun Democrat to introduce and sponsor a bill that would have required firearms retailers to be on the lookout for potentially suicidal individuals. An alert from OFF said the bill, which Buehler later amended to make optional and which ultimately failed, “sought to force gun dealers into the mental health business.”

It is the Beaver State’s never-ending political question: how moderate does a Republican have to be to have a shot at winning a statewide race? There’s no question that being a political centrist can bolster a candidate’s prospects, but there are potential pitfalls in moderate positioning that can trip a candidate up before he or she ever gets to the starting gate.

The successful campaign of Secretary of State Dennis Richardson, the first Republican to win a statewide office in Oregon since 2002, provides an instructive case in point. In the universe of staunch Oregon Republicans and conservatives, Richardson is often characterized as a moderate. But the former Central Point state representative and 2014 gubernatorial candidate has been wise enough (thus far) to avoid making sweeping statements about potential Trump culpability, knowing that most right-leaning voters, even here in Oregon, firmly believe the Russian collusion allegations amount to nothing more than a partisan, in the president’s words, “witch hunt.”

Closer to home, despite his commitment to respect and administer the laws of the state that elected him, even those he doesn’t agree with, Richardson holds ardently pro-life values.

Richardson’s decision to stay out of the Russian collusion “scandal” and the overarching issue of Trump’s fitness for the presidency (Richardson declined comment when asked by the Oregonian about Trump’s candidacy in September 2016) keeps him out of trouble with Oregon’s core GOP constituency. His personally held and incontrovertible pro-life beliefs make him a wholly acceptable standard-bearer for the state Republican Party.

Conversely, Mr. Buehler’s positioning is already attracting major flack. His Facebook post affirming his support for the  Trump/Russia investigation and Robert Mueller’s appointment as special prosecutor got many more negative comments than positive ones, with some vowing to work to ensure his potential candidacy will be thwarted.

Many Oregon conservatives are frustrated by scant Republican prospects in a geographically red state whose blue electoral plurality along the Interstate 5 corridor seems for years now to have been set in stone. For them, hope lies on the national scene, with Trump, a Republican House and Senate, and a crimson national precinct map that depicts a nation that is at the very least, center-right. For them, unity with the national landscape is imperative. Any note that moves a candidate out of alignment with that is problematic.

It is easy to understand the frustration of Oregon Republicans long denied access to the levers of power in Salem, and they’ll keep fighting tooth and nail to elect one of their own. But from the standpoint of simple morale and momentum, victories must be celebrated wherever they are found. A Republican candidate who joins the chorus of Democrats who are using an investigation based on unsubstantiated allegations from a defeated national party to delegitimize a president will sound a note of disunity that heartens the disempowered left in its quest to become nationally relevant again.

Further, a candidate seen as malleable on the question of choice versus life will present problems for many Oregon conservatives. Oregon Right to Life, the leading anti-abortion group in the state, rescinded its recommendation for Buehler in 2014 after he sent mixed messages on the issue. For a considerable number of rock-ribbed pro-lifers, such inconstancy will be a deal breaker.

Finally, as moderate as an Oregon Republican has to be to win statewide, not being in solidarity with the president presents a conundrum that may be insurmountable, especially when a candidate is routinely characterized as off the reservation on life-versus-choice and the Second Amendment.

Representative Buehler’s bet — and the hope of any Republican who hopes to win statewide in Oregon — is that disaffected Democrats and open-minded independents will add enough of their votes to the reliable GOP bloc to put a moderate candidate over the top. Though Buehler has not yet announced a gubernatorial run, many political observers hereabouts think he will run to unseat Democratic Governor Kate Brown in 2018.

He will have to win the Republican primary first.

It’s a question Republicans in moderate districts, purple precincts, and toss-up states across the fruited plain will have to ask themselves as they prepare for the midterm election. Positioning oneself too moderately — and out-of-sync with President Trump’s agenda — will cause many dug-in conservatives to think, “If this is what it takes and if this is the kind of Republican we’re going to get for our trouble, why bother?”