PORTLAND, Ore. — In an era that rewards blaring politicians, the GOP candidate for governor in Oregon speaks so softly he can be a bit hard to hear as he tries to buck his party’s image here on the West Coast.
After handing out pamphlets touting his support for abortion rights and same-sex marriage, Knute Buehler stepped to the microphone at a recent campaign event and promised that “opportunity” will “replace poverty” and “hope will replace despair” in the state. And if elected, Buehler added, he would govern with an “open mind and a caring heart.”
As Buehler spoke in this working-class Portland neighborhood, Rachelle Dixon slipped into the audience, frequently nodding her approval. That was notable, considering that Dixon is the vice chairwoman of the Multnomah County Democrats, in a year in which Democrats hope to punish Republicans up and down the ballot because of disillusionment with President Trump.
“There are Republicans I know for sure, ‘I would never vote for this person,’ ” said Dixon, 51. “But when I look at this man and his voting record, I don’t say, ‘Gosh, I’d be scared to be in the room with this guy.’ ”
For Buehler, an orthopedic surgeon and state legislator who is trying to distance himself from Trump, even Dixon’s noncommittal reaction represents a major victory in his uphill battle to become the first Republican to win an Oregon governor’s race since 1982. It’s also the sort of reaction that is giving Democrats fits as moderate GOP candidates are proving to be resilient in unexpected places, even as much of the Republican Party shifts to the right.
With 36 gubernatorial races on the ballot nationwide, Democrats are still expected to make gains in state houses this year as their party targets a raft of open seats and several GOP incumbents, including Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.
But recent polls suggest that Republicans Larry Hogan of Maryland, Charlie Baker of Massachusetts and Phil Scott of Vermont — all up for reelection this fall in states carried by Hillary Clinton in 2016 — remain among the most popular governors in the country and are favored to win reelection.
Their success in winning and governing as moderates is serving as a model for GOP candidates elsewhere, including in Rhode Island and here in Oregon, where officials in both parties say the governor’s race is competitive.
“I think the ‘Blue Wall’ has holes in it,” said John H. Frey, a state legislator and Republican National Committee member from Connecticut, where Democrat Ned Lamont is facing off against Republican Bob Stefanowski for an open seat in an election some observers say could be close.
Hard-fought governors’ races in traditionally Democratic states are nothing new. Massachusetts, for example, has had only one Democratic governor in the past 27 years. But the stakes are high for Democrats this year as the party tries to form state-level bulwarks against GOP policies in Washington. Democrats also hope to gain more control over redistricting before state legislators and governors draw new congressional boundaries after the 2020 Census.
“With the inability of Washington to come to consensus on so many important issues, many of them, such as reproductive rights and gun control, and even health care, are coming down to the state level,” said Joseph McNamara, chairman of the Rhode Island Democratic Party. Polls in Rhode Island show Gov. Gina Raimondo (D) could be vulnerable. “I think people will see through [Republicans’] moderate talk and realize a true moderate Republican is few and far between.”
The Oregon governor’s race is shaping up as a referendum on incumbent Kate Brown’s low-profile leadership style in a state where the disconnection between liberal cities and Trump-supporting farming and mountain communities continues to grow.
Brown, who took office in 2015 after her predecessor, John Kitzhaber, resigned in scandal, is one of the nation’s most liberal governors, enacting free tuition at community colleges, paid sick leave for workers, an increase in the minimum wage and some of the nation’s most stringent environmental protections.
But Brown, 58, has been hobbled by a series of management crises, including an overwhelmed and underfunded foster care system and a state pension program saddled with $22 billion in debt. Brown has also struggled to address the state’s homeless population, especially in Portland, where people camp on sidewalks and in parks.
“There are a range of issues where, not necessarily because of bad acting on her part, but people in her administration either [have] created or not dealt with a problem, and Kate has not appeared to be in charge of pushing for a solution,” said Gary Conkling, a Portland-based public affairs consultant and political observer.
Brown’s vulnerabilities have been magnified by relentless attacks from the state’s business community, which is dumping money into a political action committee whose donors are anonymous. The group, Priority Oregon, is hammering Brown with more than $1 million in negative ads.
“Do you want to hear a crazy story?” states one ad, which features a woman reading a bedtime story to her son and daughter in a dimly lit room. “In Kate Brown’s Oregon, there are homeless camps everywhere. Foster care children don’t get enough to eat. Seniors are abused in nursing homes.”
In an interview, Brown blasted the ads as reliant on “dirty, dark money” that undercuts the state’s progressive campaign finance reporting system. Because Priority Oregon is a 501(c)4 “social welfare organization,” it is not required to identify its donors.
Although Buehler’s campaign says it has no affiliation with Priority Oregon, the ads have helped lay the foundation for his message, which centers on improving quality of life through more-effective, bipartisan governance.
“When you come to me as a physician, I don’t ask if you are Republican, Democrat or independent,” said Buehler, who defeated nine other candidates in the GOP primary in May. “I ask you what your problem is . . . then I roll up my sleeves to solve the problem.”
Buehler’s message closely tracks with how Baker, the Massachusetts governor, and Hogan, Maryland’s governor, have remained popular since being elected in 2014.
GOP consultant Mike Leavitt, who was Hogan’s strategist in 2014, is performing the same role for Buehler. Buehler said he has also been studying Baker’s policies in Massachusetts to address homelessness and affordable housing.
But Buehler and other GOP challengers running for governor this year in Democratic-leaning states face a hurdle that neither Hogan nor Baker had to navigate in their initial campaigns: Trump’s deep unpopularity among Democrats.
Buehler, who represents Democratic-leaning Bend, Ore., in the legislature, has a record of opposing Trump. In 2015, during the initial phase of Trump’s presidential bid, Buehler referred to him as an “angry, self-absorbed” candidate who is “uninformed, out of touch and has no place as a leader of the Republican Party.”
“I don’t have blind loyalty to anyone except my wife,” Buehler said in an interview, adding that he supports Trump’s efforts to cut regulations and renegotiate some trade deals.
Brown said she must now convince voters that Buehler “absolutely does not” have “values that reflect Oregonians.” She notes that Buehler, despite his announced support for abortion rights, voted against a bill to protect it should the Supreme Court overturn Roe v. Wade. Buehler also supports overturning the state’s sanctuary immigration law, which Brown has worked to strengthen.
“All the progressive work we have done, from minimum wage to women’s reproductive health to racial justice issues, will grind to a halt if my opponent gets elected,” Brown said.
With Oregon Democrats holding a 250,000-person edge over Republicans in voter registration, many analysts say Brown still has an advantage.
“I can’t imagine a more rotten time to try to try to convince a bluish state to elect a Republican governor,” said Josh Kardon, a former chief of staff to Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). “When you have a wave election, [Republicans] don’t just need a good hand, you need a great hand to survive a statewide election in Oregon.”
But John Della Volpe, director of polling at the Institute of Politics at Harvard Kennedy School, cautioned that the allure of Republican governors in some traditionally Democratic states appears to be persisting, despite the Trump presidency, because swing voters still prefer some ideological “balance” in state governments.
“There is a real thirst and desire for people to see state lawmakers focus on issues that affect them in tangible ways, and sometimes that means reaching across party lines,” he said.
Whether that happens this year in Oregon could be up to voters in the Portland suburbs, including here in vote-rich Clackamas County southeast of the city. The county tends to narrowly support Democratic candidates in presidential elections while narrowly supporting Republicans in state races.
In the county seat of Oregon City — where shuttered paper mills tower over a mix of new Main Street shops selling coffee, designer clothing and marijuana — the political divide can be especially extreme. And at least here, Republican-leaning voters appear more energized to vote as they sense that Brown is vulnerable.
At Trails End Saloon, named after the town’s designation as the end of the Oregon Trail that brought settlers to the Pacific Coast, bartender Jill Fuge said she will vote for Buehler because she worries Brown hasn’t effectively managed homelessness or a series of violent protests in Portland.
“I just feel the city is being run into the ground,” said Fuge, speaking near a replica stagecoach hanging from the bar’s rafters. “The governor is just way too liberal.”
About a mile away at Willamette Valley Books and Bullion, which sells antique books and trinkets dating as far back as the 17th century, Democrat Brian Berger spends up to three hours a day “glued” to television news coverage about Trump’s chaotic presidency. His passion for Brown is far more muted.
“I think she is doing an adequate job, but I will probably vote for her,” said Berger, a 75-year-old book collector.
That lack of enthusiasm worries Scott Gibson, 85, a volunteer at the neighboring Clackamas County Democrats storefront office.
“In this county, it’s always a push uphill to get Democrats to vote,” Gibson said. “And this year, there is a threat that voters are just tired of the status quo, and, just for the sake of change, they will vote in someone else.”