The classic way for a challenger to take down an incumbent is to 1) raise doubts about the incumbent’s performance and 2) position yourself as a preferred alternative.
Rep. Knute Buehler (R-Bend), the presumptive front-running GOP gubernatorial challenger, has been taking whacks at Governor Kate Brown for months and insisting he could do better. But his political challenge runs deeper. Buehler has to prove in next week’s GOP primary that he is a more attractive candidate than his more politically conservative fellow Republicans.
Buehler has raised and spent vastly more money than his GOP competitors, called out one opponent for having 21 tax liens against him and generally avoided mixing it up with fellow candidates in the hustings. This week, Buehler came up with a new tactic: a dress rehearsal for GOP voters on how he would campaign against Brown if he wins the GOP nomination.
Buehler tried to upstage Brown at her media event in Eugene to tout her support for improved foster care in Oregon. Buehler, who has been a fierce critic of Brown’s leadership on foster care, scheduled his own media event at the same location, blasted Brown’s performance and recalled his legislative proposal to increase spending on foster care in Oregon by $50 million.
The political troll of Brown was itself a prime example of what challengers have to do to unseat incumbents. But the timing and intensity of Buehler’s media event was probably intended to impress undecided GOP voters that the Bend Republican will do more than recite conservative doctrine if he is the Republican who wins the job.
Buehler has taken pains to create a political image outside the shadow of Donald Trump on the fairly safe grounds that Oregon is anything but Trump-friendly. His purported variance from conservative orthodoxy, including on emotion-charged issues such as abortion, haven’t necessarily swayed a segment of Oregon’s conservative political base. That’s why Oregon Right to Life threw its support behind Sam Carpenter, the opponent Buehler pointed out who has all those tax liens.
Since primary elections in Oregon and generally are bastions for the partisan faithful, Buehler could wind up next Tuesday as the candidate with the best chance to test Brown, but who can’t win his own primary. His best hope is to convince Republicans that having a chance to win in November is more rewarding than basking in the defeat of a political moderate in May.
His struggle to convince GOP conservatives was evident when he barely squeaked out a victory in a straw ballot among generally more moderate Washington County Republicans. It should be noted that only 75 Republicans showed up for the unusual pre-primary event.
And that’s the problem with the formula for defeating incumbents. It takes one more element to pull off the upset. After beating up the incumbent and touting your own competence, you need to make sure voter turnout favors your candidacy. That may not be the case on Tuesday for Buehler.
In what is viewed as a lackluster primary, turnout could be relatively low, which could mean a higher percentage of bedrock conservative voters. Much of Buehler’s general election appeal is to the growing group of non-affiliated Oregon voters. Unfortunately for Buehler, independent voters won’t get the chance to weigh in his primary gubernatorial bid.
Meanwhile, Brown faces only token opposition in the Democratic primary and will enter the general election with her campaign war chest intact and robust. Buehler may represent her toughest opponent, but only if he earns the GOP nomination on Tuesday.