Polls show the Oregon gubernatorial race is tighter than expected, at least by Democrats, and suggests it’s possible a Republican could capture the governor’s chair for the first time since 1978.
Buehler’s challenge to incumbent Governor Kate Brown is serious enough to ask what Oregon politics would look like if the state had a Republican governor while Democrats retained control of the Oregon House and Senate. Here are some thoughts:
Oregon Land Board
The three-member board that oversees state lands, from forests to submersible lands, would have two votes sympathetic to commercial interests – Governor Buehler and GOP Secretary of State Dennis Richardson. Some of Buehler’s biggest campaign contributors have come from leaders in the forest products industry, which could tip decisions in a different direction, such as the previously proposed sale of the Elliott State Forest.
Raising taxes and PERS
On the campaign trail, Buehler says he will block any tax increases until the legislature enacts cost-saving reforms to the Public Employees Retirement System. This has been a stand-off waiting to happen. Business interests – and more quietly school boards – would welcome this kind of pressure to force a compromise that reduces the unfunded PERS liability. A task force named by Brown spent months searching for ways to cut into the deficit and came away with a scant list of possibilities. Buehler may not fare any better, but he might bring fresh energy to the challenge.
State agency management
A Buehler victory would mean wholesale changes at the top of state agencies. Buehler has called out management lapses under Brown and he wouldn’t miss the chance to replace Brown appointees, especially since many Republicans may line up at his door seeking those jobs.
Health care and human services
Under Democrats, Oregon carved out a niche in health care and long-term care delivery. These innovations have long enough roots that can’t be ripped out, but Buehler, who is a doctor, would covet the chance to put his own mark on Oregon’s health care system. He would likely face strong legislative opposition to Trump-like limitations on Medicaid and he might choose instead to focus on shoring up or even reinventing the state’s embattled child welfare system.
A politically opportune opening for Buehler would be combating the homelessness issue by significantly increasing community-based mental health resources, promoting innovative approaches to substance abuse and expanding options for victims of domestic abuse. In campaign ads, he has promised some “tough love,” which presumably means a coordinated effort to end camping in parks and on streets by providing more temporary shelters and affordable housing connected with services. Homelessness has emerged as a raw-nerve issue that has some urban Democrats weighing a vote against the incumbent they have supported in the past.
The quiet issue in the corner of this election is congressional and legislative redistricting, which will occur after the 2020 Census. GOP control of the governorship and secretary of state could give Republicans a bigger grip on how maps are redrawn. That could be especially significant if Oregon earns a sixth congressional district, which would be carved out of existing districts held by Democrats and potentially make one or more seats competitive in the 2022 election. Redistricting could also make a few House and Senate districts more competitive, making Democratic legislative control less a fait accompli.
A Republican governor and Democratic legislative leaders could be like mixing oil and water. However, there has been a history in Oregon of bipartisan collaboration between moderate Republicans and Democrats. That is more likely if Buehler sticks to his moderate positioning and isn’t tempted to channel Trump policies on deregulation and tax policy. In fact, a Republican governor could be the galvanizing factor that breaks some logjams on policy issues in Salem by requiring bipartisan compromises.
Brown has admitted she has a reserved, personable style that may not resonate with everyone, especially in the shadow of more flamboyant politicians, even though it has produced significant successes such as a higher minimum wage, major transportation funding package and a clean air initiative.
Buehler’s political persona isn’t over the top, but he has campaigned as a problem-solver willing to butt heads in Salem to get things done. His projection of himself as an action figure contrasts with the quieter approach of Brown and might be a better match for the political moment of this election, even if it results in inevitable public confrontations with Democratic legislative leaders in 2019.