Here’s how bad it got for the Oregon GOP in 2008: The “Republican” candidate running for the state’s top law enforcement post in November was a former aide to President Clinton and U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.).
That candidate for attorney general, John Kroger, collected most of his campaign money from groups Republicans love to hate—public employee unions. And in one of his first moves after winning, Kroger named one of the state’s most aggressive environmental advocates, Brent Foster, to go after corporate polluters. Some Republican.
Kroger, actually a Democrat, won the GOP nomination on a write-in basis after Republicans failed to field their own attorney general candidate. As if that weren’t embarrassing enough, Republicans then watched Democrats sweep to a super-majority in the Oregon House and dump two-term incumbent U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith for Democrat Jeff Merkley, who a year ago couldn’t have gotten close enough to Smith to carry the senator’s golf bag.
So why does incompetence make Oregon Republicans the Rogue of the Year? At the risk of sounding like Pollyanna, no vigorous debate between at least two parties means no competition in the marketplace of ideas and a democracy that’s more likely to become flaccid and corrupt. Just ask Illinois. Thanks to the Oregon GOP’s slow-motion political suicide, there’s little real political debate in our state today.
After Merkley sent Smith packing—or back to pea-packing—Republicans’ record of failure in statewide elections is unblemished: They hold no statewide office for the first time since 1859. Democrats—and by extension their primary patrons, the public-employee unions—enjoy super-majorities in both legislative chambers.
Amazing, really, given that the Oregon Republican Party was once home to such national icons as Gov. Tom McCall and U.S. Sens. Mark Hatfield and Bob Packwood (OK, Packwood fell a tad in the public’s estimation before resigning in disgrace).
There’s no doubt President Bush’s unpopularity hurt Republicans in Oregon and nationally. But the party, which began 2008 deeply in debt (see “State of Red,” WW, Feb. 20, 2008) looks rudderless, leaderless and clueless.
“What you could say right now is, Republicans tend to circle the wagons and shoot toward the middle,” says state Sen. Larry George (R-Sherwood), who also does polling, advertising and strategy for GOP candidates.
Only three years ago, then-House Speaker Karen Minnis (R-Wood Village) and House Majority Leader Wayne Scott (R-Canby) ran the House and much of the state with brass knuckles. Now they’ve retired, and anarchy reigns.
In 2008, two GOP legislative candidates in key districts, Matt Lindland in House District 52 (Corbett) and Matt Wingard in HD 26 (Wilsonville), publicly thumbed their noses at Minnis’ successor, Bruce Hanna (R-Roseburg), when Hanna did not support them.
And what are Republicans doing? Right now, major GOP donors such as Loren Parks and Dick Wendt primarily invest in recycling Bill Sizemore’s assaults on unions. The party, engulfed in a leadership battle, still boasts a platform groaning with the kinds of social issues—opposing abortion and gay rights—that repel Oregon’s large swath of nonaffiliated voters and even moderate R’s.
George says the GOP’s return to relevance will involve listening rather than pressing a red-meat social agenda. “My polling tells me voters don’t really care about choice as an issue,” George says.
George contends Oregon is far from the Crater Lake-blue state the November results suggest. He notes that Republican treasurer candidate Allen Alley and GOP secretary of state candidate Rick Dancer each pulled more than 43 percent of the vote against far better-known and -financed Democrats, despite late starts.
George says there’s a skeptical, libertarian streak that runs deep in this state and that for Republicans to matter again, the GOP must discard its identification as the party of the wealthy.
“The voters I’m talking to don’t like big companies, and they don’t like taxes,” George says. “Blue-collar Republicans are the future of the party.”
George and others hoping to resurrect the GOP will get a chance to make their cases—and begin trying to identify a candidate for the wide-open 2010 gubernatorial race—when the party meets for its 45th annual Dorchester Conference on March 6 in Seaside. We wish them luck.