Oregon Republican gubernatorial candidates debating Saturday night found plenty of agreement on policy positions and vision for the state but above all the rest said Gov. Kate Brown must go.
Seated at a long table in front of about 190 people in Keizer, the seven candidates said Brown and Democrats in the state legislature are the underlying cause of what they see as Oregon’s biggest problems, including poor high school graduation rates, lack of accountability for public officials and high taxes.
Former Navy Capt. Greg Wooldridge said a “lack of courageous leadership” and an inability to inspire from the governor’s office is hurting Oregon.
“This is the best state in the Union and it needs to be reflected in our results. It’s not being reflected in our results because of poor leadership,” Wooldridge said.
Sam Carpenter, a Bend businessman, went a step further, saying the “real enemy” is what he called the progressive far-left.
Carpenter called for the end of the “32-year progressive far-left reign of terror” and for Republicans to take control of not only the governorship, but both legislative chambers.
There are currently 26 states with so-called red trifectas, while only eight — including Oregon — that have Democrats in control of those three bodies.
“That tide wants to come over the Cascades, and it will,” Carpenter said.
Wooldridge in his closing statement expounded on the importance of strong leadership, putting teams of people together and healing the state.
But Carpenter went the other direction, making it clear that he has no interest in working with Democrats.
“There’s no more crossing the aisle. We’ve been doing that for 30 years,” Carpenter said. “We need to go in there and we need to fix it.”
Wooldridge received 40 percent support in a straw poll at the annual conservative Dorchester Conference in early March; Carpenter received 20 percent.
Whether that result means anything depends on which campaign you ask.
There was one notable absence Saturday night — Rep. Knute Buehler, R-Bend, who received 29 percent support at the conference.
Many consider Buehler the most likely Republican to face Brown in the November general election. He has about $1.9 million on hand as of Sunday for his gubernatorial run — far more than the combined total of his primary opponents. He also has state government experience and the support from top Republicans in the state, including House Republican Leader Mike McLane, R-Powell Butte.
Buehler’s campaign manager Rebecca Tweed said in an email that Buehler had a “previously scheduled commitment” preventing his participation in the debate sponsored by the Marion County Republicans and Oregon Women for Trump. She did not provide additional details when asked about Buehler’s prior commitment.
Jeff Heyen, Chairman of the Marion County Republicans, said he was told Buehler was out of state at a fundraising event.
Heyen said he would have liked to see Buehler in attendance so voters could hear about his positions directly from him, but he understands raising money is important, too.
“It just depends on the value the candidate places on the local meetings like this,” Heyen said. “Opportunities like this, especially for candidates that maybe don’t have a lot of money in the bank, are hugely important to get their message out.”
Early in the debate, the candidates were asked if they would support whoever received the Republican nomination. Most said they would.Carpenter’s response drew laughs: “Are any of you guys on food stamps? Raise their hand? Then I will absolutely support any of you guys.”
But as the debate wore on there were implications that Buehler wouldn’t be supported by some in the Republican base who consider him too moderate.
Heyen said that concerned him.
“If Republicans cannot get out the vote, we will not win. Pure and simple,” Heyen said.
Elgin businessman Jeff Smith said that not talking about contentious issues was the best way to secure enough votes to win in November.
If Republicans take a position on issues that lack common ground with Democrats, Smith said, the sheer number of Democrats in the state will ensure a Republican never becomes governor.
There are some issues as a Republican in Oregon that you can’t win running on, he said.
“I have one issue: winning,” Smith said.
Among the issues he encouraged the candidates to not talk about were natural resource management, a right to work amendment, the “cap-and-invest” legislation that failed in the Legislature, how to deal with undocumented immigrants in Oregon, and PERS reform.
Smith’s non-answers during the debate repeatedly drew murmurs from the crowd, and a handful of “wow” in surprise.
Among the policy positions candidates did take, they mostly agreed on: increased local control of natural resource management, particularly timber; no new gun regulation laws; fewer taxes; reduced spending, including weaning the state off some federal funds; and pulling government out of as many areas of the private sector as possible.