Oregon’s gubernatorial race continues to be a low-key affair with the election now just six weeks away and ballots due to arrive in mailboxes before then.
Democratic Governor Kate Brown doesn’t face any credible primary opposition and seems to be waiting to see who Oregon Republicans will choose to face her in the fall general election.
Rep. Knute Buehler from Bend has raised the most money among GOP candidates and struck a moderate political posture on abortion and guns, making him potentially a strong candidate to woo independent and alienated Democratic voters in November. However, Buehler, an orthopedic surgeon, has to win the May 15 primary against more right-leaning opponents, including former Blue Angels Commander Greg Wooldridge, who has been endorsed by Oregon Right to Life, and Bend businessman Sam Carpenter, who is an unapologetic supporter of President Trump.
The annual Republican Dorchester Conference straw ballot early in March favored Wooldridge over Buehler. Buehler downplayed the result, saying he had little time to mix and mingle with Dorchester conferees because he was in Salem for the short Oregon legislative session that adjourned just when the conference was beginning. Others viewed Buehler’s loss as his weakness with what have come to be called Trump voters.
Since then, Oregon Public Broadcasting reports Buehler has skipped several candidate forums attended by his GOP gubernatorial rivals, which has raised questions. “People are asking why. You know, it’s peculiar,” Baker County GOP Chairwoman Suzan Ellis Jones told OPB. Wooldridge’s campaign team has been blunter. “What is he hiding from. If he’s not willing to meet people face-to-face, I’m not sure he’s really ready to represent the people of Oregon,” said Russ Walker, a Woolridge campaign strategist.
There are 10 Republicans vying to take on Brown. Buehler has reported a campaign war chest of more than $3 million, while Wooldridge and Carpenter are the only other two hopefuls who have raised more than $100,000. Nobody’s campaign has taken to the airwaves so far.
Buehler is betting his experience serving two terms in the Oregon legislature, fundraising connections and moderate policy positions on reproductive rights and gun control will convince Republicans that he is the only GOP candidate with a chance to defeat Brown and become the first Republican since Vic Atiyeh to sit in the governor’s chair. Most of Buehler’s statements have come in the form of criticizing Brown.
Buehler reportedly bypassed challenging Brown in 2016, when she ran to fill the remaining two years of former Governor John Kitzhaber’s fourth term, because Democratic turnout was expected to be high in a presidential election year. However, 2018 may not be all that different as Democrats have energized their political base in response to actions by Trump, such as undermining Obamacare, challenging legalization of marijuana and dismantling environmental regulations. The Trump tax plan that will limit federal tax deductions for state and local taxes and Trump’s tariffs on trade with China have irritated upper-income Oregonians and alarmed farmers. Trump’s overall favorability rating in Oregon hovers below 40 percent.
Voters along the I-5 corridor from Eugene to Portland are reliably Democratic, but there will likely be more Democratic electoral efforts in rural Oregon aimed at Greg Walden, Oregon’s lone GOP congressman. The Republican gubernatorial nominee, whoever it is, may be forced to spend time and resources to defend the Red State part of Oregon.
In the general election, Brown will be attacked as a weak leader who has presided over state agency foul-ups and resulted in a fairly high turnover rate of agency leaders. Brown will cite her leadership in a major transportation funding measure, a hike in the state minimum wage and create of a state-sponsored retirement savings plan.
Buehler probably will need to dig into his campaign fund to raise his visibility before the primary, while Brown probably will hold off any major media outreach until the general election campaign is underway. She has the luxury of using the next few months to bolster her $3.2 million campaign bank account.
That means for now, Oregonians can enjoy the relative quietude of the gubernatorial race. It promises to get a lot noisier and nastier.