State Rep. Knute Buehler, R-Bend, emerged victorious from a surprisingly tough Oregon Republican gubernatorial primary Tuesday and will now face Democratic Gov. Kate Brown in the general election.
Brown easily won a lightly contested Democratic primary as she readies for her second general-election campaign in two years. In 2016, she was elected to fill the last two years of the term of John Kitzhaber, who resigned amid a scandal involving his fiancee’s consulting work.
Buehler, a state representative and orthopedic surgeon from Bend, was the only GOP candidate with a large campaign fund. His opponents couldn't match his heavy spending on TV ads and mailers.
But Buehler frequently found himself getting into hot water with party activists who didn’t think he was conservative enough. They particularly criticized him for refusing to embrace President Donald Trump and for describing himself as pro-choice on abortion. Buehler’s recent vote in favor of a gun-control bill related to domestic abuse also rankled many gun-rights activists.
Bend businessman Sam Carpenter and retired Naval aviator Greg Wooldridge mounted the toughest challenges to Buehler.
Carpenter tied himself closely to Trump, adopting the campaign slogan “Make Oregon Great Again” and proclaiming that he too was a take-charge CEO in the mold of the president.
Wooldridge, who led the Navy’s famed Blue Angels stunt team, won the endorsement of Oregon Right to Life, the state’s major anti-abortion group. He argued that his leadership of the Lemoore Naval Air Station in California showed that he knew how to manage complex organizations.
The low turnout in the race — fewer than half the state’s 700,000 Republican voters were expected to take part — added a big level of uncertainty as Tuesday’s election approached.
“We know the Republican Party is a collection of tribes,” that ranges from wealthy business people to anti-abortion evangelicals, said Greg Leo, a former executive director of the state GOP. “And who wins may depend on turnout.”
Buehler, describing himself as “fiercely independent,” pitched himself as someone who could also appeal well outside the Republican base — which he said was necessary given that the party’s nominees regularly fail to win statewide contests. In fact, no Republican has won an Oregon governor’s race since 1982.
Buehler’s advertising accused Brown of a series of management failures as governor, on issues as varied as the state’s troubled foster care system and the big financial problems facing the state’s public employee retirement system.
He drained most of his bank account in a $1.5 million advertising blitz. Buehler said his campaign always planned to spend big in the primary because it was a good time to communicate with voters.
But his rivals – and many others – took it as a sign of how worried the Buehler campaign was about making it through the primary. At one point, Buehler also released a radio ad and a mailer attacking Carpenter for having a series of personal and business tax liens.
Carpenter scoffed that Buehler exaggerated the extent of his tax problems and noted that he had always eventually paid all that he owed.
Buehler often skipped events featuring his rivals and didn’t agree to participate in a debate until the end of the campaign. On the Friday before Tuesday’s primary, the three top candidates appeared together for an hour on the Portland-based talk show hosted by conservative Lars Larson.
In that event, Buehler turned the tables on Carpenter, coming at him from the right. Buehler – and Wooldridge – both said they would refuse to enforce a proposed ballot measure that would ban military-style semi-automatic firearms.
Carpenter said he strongly opposed the initiative but that it would be his job as governor to enforce the law. The next day, he said he bungled the answer by failing to talk about how he would push hard to have the measure overturned by the courts, should it become law.
By the time election night rolled around, Buehler reported having about $450,000 left in his campaign bank account. Brown, meanwhile, is sitting on a $3.7 million campaign fund.