SALEM — Bend is “ground zero” for keeping Democrats from becoming a legislative superpower in Salem, capable of passing tax increases with Republicans as little more than a speed bump on the way to the state treasury, top Republicans warned Friday.

GOP leaders in Salem said the decision by Rep. Knute Buehler, R-Bend, to run for governor in 2018 could scramble the political landscape. Democrats have a 35-25 majority in the House — one vote short of the supermajority needed to pass taxes without any Republican support.

That slim margin frustrated House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, during the 2017 session.

With Buehler leaving House District 54, the seat is up for grabs.

“We expect Bend to be ground zero for Portland politicians like Speaker Kotek in their efforts to build a supermajority to pass a sales tax on small businesses and consumers,” said Preston Mann, spokesman for the House Republican Caucus.

“That being said, we are very excited about the number of quality candidates who have already expressed interest in running for this seat and earning the support of Bend voters.”

Buehler said last week he knew his underdog bid to become the first Republican governor elected in Oregon since 1982 comes with a possibly high price tag for the GOP. But he also felt the time was ripe to win back the state’s top job.

“I’m focused on running for governor,” Buehler said Wednesday. “The future of my seat is for others to decide.” Buehler specifically mentioned the Republican House Caucus.

Buehler’s decision set off a scramble for his House seat, which includes the vast majority of Bend. Every city council member, business leader, activist and others are doing gut checks — and wallet checks for fundraising — with no one name likely big enough to pre-empt a multicandidate primary in both Republican and Democratic parties.

Mann declined to provide any names “at this early stage” of the process of who had been contacted about running for Buehler’s seat.

But in tight political circles of Deschutes County, names of both Democrats and Republicans have been floated for months as Buehler’s desire to run for governor was well-known.

The wish-upon-a-star candidate for Republicans would be Jason Conger. When Judy Stiegler defeated two-term House Rep. Chuck Burley, R-Bend, in 2008, it sent shock waves through the political circles in Salem. Democrats had won on the east side of the Cascades, a rarity in those days. Conger took back the seat for Republicans in 2010, then was elected in 2012 despite redistricting. He stepped down in 2014 to go into private law practice. Buehler ran in 2014 and again last year.

Conger has let it be known through GOP political circles that he is not interested in a return to the House. It’s too early for state GOP leaders to try to change his mind if they don’t think those who are running can hold the district for the Republicans.

Other possible GOP candidates include Bend Mayor Casey Roats, though a check of records at the Secretary of State’s office shows that on his 2014 candidate registration card, Roats started to check “Republican,” crossed it out, then marked “Nonpartisan.” Deschutes County Commissioner Tammy Baney has a strong electoral record and name recognition.

Adam Bledsoe — brother of retired All-Pro NFL Quarterback Drew Bledsoe — lost a recent bid for a seat on the board of the Bend Park & Recreation District. His campaign was backed by contributions from Tim Phillips, a former GOP congressional candidate in Portland who runs a wealth management business in the city. He’s a major GOP contributor and has moved permanently to Bend.

A wild card is Reagan Knopp, the son of state Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend. The editor of Oregon Catalyst, a conservative website, no longer lives in the district. But there is plenty of time to return.

The list of Democrats starts with Gena Goodman-Campbell, Democrat and environmental activist who won 48 percent of the vote against Buehler last year, a sign that the voter registration edge might mean that even Buehler couldn’t hold the district — especially with reapportionment after the 2020 election likely to give Bend a heavier Democratic presence.

Bend Councilor Nathan Boddie has been frequently mentioned. Any of those on the losing end of a Conger or Buehler election in recent years might run again — including Nathan Hovenkamp. Judy Stiegler could launch a comeback, or back her husband, former District Attorney Michael Dugan. There’s a younger generation of activists, like Erin Foote Morgan of Bend 2030, who are new names in a city where being new is not an oddity.

Who represents House District 54 is of importance far beyond the Bend Chamber of Commerce or the local environmental group.

It may not be fair to place the political fate of the Legislature on the shoulders of one of the 90 state lawmakers — 60 in the House, 30 in the Senate. But a case can be made that Buehler’s unleashing of all this speculation is the electoral equivalent of the Little Dutch Boy, with his fingers in the dike.

Buehler is pulling his finger — giving up his House seat. It could bring a wave of Democratic dominance through the crumbling Republican electoral barrier. Or, just as the election of Republican Dennis Richardson as Secretary of State surprised Democrats, the right candidate with an “R” after his or her name could replug the leaks.

The next move is up to Democrats. House Speaker Kotek, when asked if Democrats winning Buehler’s seat was a priority if he ran for governor, said it was too soon after the exhausting session and too far from 2018.

“I just want to go on vacation,” she said.

She returns after watching the solar eclipse on Aug. 21, when she and her fellow Democratic leaders will likely be ready to start planning how to throw some shade on the GOP.

— Bulletin reporter Julia Shumway contributed to this story.

Reporter: 541-525-5280, gwarner@bendbulletin.com

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