Knute Buehler on Tuesday showed a moderate Republican can win the Oregon gubernatorial primary in the age of Donald Trump.
Buehler, a Bend physician and legislator, handily beat back challenges by Sam Carpenter and Greg Wooldridge, his two more conservative rivals. In partial returns late Tuesday, Buehler had collected 47 percent of votes cast compared to 30 percent for Carpenter and 18 percent for Wooldridge.
“Buehler convinced mainstream conservative Republicans that maybe he’s the only one (from his party) who can win in November,” said Gary Conkling, a Portland-based communications and political consultant. “He positioned himself as a moderate.”
Buehler spent most of the primary season attacking the Democratic incumbent, Gov. Kate Brown, and portraying himself as a moderate and a mainstream candidate. He enjoys a huge financial edge over his rivals, thanks to the backing of Phil Knight, several Oregon timber companies or their executives and other wealthy benefactors.
Buehler raised more than $3.4 million. Wooldridge, a former Navy jet pilot who entered the race late, raised nearly $300,000. Carpenter raised $235,000.
About three weeks ago, Buehler changed direction, took his focus off Brown and went after Carpenter, a Bend telecommunications entrepreneur. Buehler said a history of federal and state tax liens against Carpenter and his company made him an unfit candidate.
Observers and opponents said the Buehler camp was alarmed by polls that showed Carpenter narrowing the gap.
Carpenter said he came under attack because his unapologetic brand of conservatism appealed to the invisible army of Trump supporters.
Next up is the general election in November, pitting Buehler against Brown.
Hundreds of people squeezed into Buehler’s victory party at the McMenamins Old Church and Pub in Wilsonville. Buehler challenged Brown to participate in 10 debates around the state between now and November.
Buehler’s moderate pitch may not win over many Democrats, Conkling said. But Brown is vulnerable with independents, some of whom are eager for a change. “He’s kept up a steady drumbeat knocking down the incumbent,” Conkling said. “He’s talked about management, the turnover, the questionable policy choices. I think he’s been doing it long enough and relatively effectively that he’ll at least be in the conversation in November.”
Buehler has been likened to Chris Dudley, the former Portland Trail Blazer who ran for governor in 2010 on a moderate plank. Like Dudley, Buehler is a pro-choice social moderate and a fiscal conservative. He has vowed not to sign a single spending bill as governor until he gets a substantive bill to reform Oregon’s underfunded public pension fund.
Ben Unger, the fiery outgoing executive director of the progressive political group, Our Oregon, said the primary was a disaster for Buehler. “The fact that Buehler had to spend all his money to beat a bunch of nobodies tells us all we need to know about this candidate,” Unger said. “I don’t know anyone who’s excited about Knute Buehler.”
Others argue that Buehler has a shot.
“It was close, but no cigar for Dudley,” said Pat McCormick, a Portland communications consultant. But Buehler may be another story. Buehler has considerably more political credibility than Dudley, having served as a state legislator for four years.
“He’s the Republican candidate who has a chance to win even in a state as blue as Oregon,” McCormick said. “He’s viewed as a guy who can finally loosen the Democrats’ hold on the governor’s mansion.”
The battle lines were forming even before the Tuesday primary vote count was final. A coalition of women’s groups scheduled a gathering Wednesday to challenge Buehler’s record on reproductive rights. Buehler has said his proudest moment in politics was his 2015 bill that provided women access to prescription birth control without having to visit a doctor.
— Jeff Manning