SALEM — Republicans descended into the state capital this weekend for the 54th annual Dorchester Conference, the social and political centerpiece of the year for the GOP in Oregon.
Activists came to the Salem Convention Center to celebrate and debate.
Celebrate: the election of President Donald Trump, the Republicans’ first statewide officeholder in over a decade (Secretary of State Dennis Richardson) and the GOP firewall in Oregon’s otherwise all-Democratic delegation to Washington (U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River).
Debate: how best to reverse party fortunes on the state level, where Democrats hold a strong political “trifecta.” Gov. Kate Brown is a Democrat. Democrats hold a 35-25 majority in the state House and a 17-13 majority in the state Senate. No Republican has been elected governor since Vic Atiyeh won his second term in 1982 — back when Ronald Reagan was in the second year of his presidency.
In Oregon, Republicans are in third place when it comes to voter registration, behind Democrats and “not affiliated.”
Richardson called on the party to stop having political “litmus tests” for both officeholders and party members and instead to reach out to Oregonians who might be looking for something other than Democratic Party hegemony.
“I didn’t win office because I am a Republican,” Richardson said. “I won office because I am an Oregonian.”
Richardson said Republicans need to listen to people in Portland and elsewhere, where the party was written off in the past.
“We need to reach out to blacks, Latinos, and LGBTQ+,” Richardson said.
Richardson urged activists to run for local, state and national office — particularly the younger Republicans in the crowd.
Among the speakers was Rep. Knute Buehler, R-Bend, who is running for governor. In a speech to the crowd of activists, Buehler said he would bring balance back to an Oregon dominated by Democrats.
“Too many people in Oregon are being left out and left behind,” Buehler said.
Buehler said “none of us should be asked to pay more income tax,” and that educational reform would be one of his main efforts if he is elected.
“We have to rescue our kids from an unacceptable status quo,” Buehler said.
Supporters of other Republican candidates for governor, including Sam Carpenter, Bruce Cuff and Greg Wooldridge, worked the crowd and posted campaign signs in and around the convention center.
Walden was introduced as “a guy who is a glutton for punishment.”
Walden has been a lightning rod for anti-Republican ire as a congressional leader on tax cuts, internet commerce policy, and attempts to dismantle the Affordable Care Act. The 10-term lawmaker has attracted 10 opponents — including seven Democrats — in the 2018 election.
Walden touted the tax cut championed by President Trump as a key to an economic upswing for voters.
“They earned the money, and we wanted them to keep a little more of the money,” Walden said, adding, “They call it crumbs.”
He joked about the weekly protests at his district office in Bend, calling out the group Indivisible Bend by name.
“Every Tuesday, it’s ‘Trump Tuesday’ at my office,” Walden said, adding, “Maybe we’ll serve crumb cake this week.”
Walden praised the Trump administration for dismantling regulations on business.
“When they came into office, they said for every one new regulation, two should be repealed,” Walden said. “They’ve repealed 22 for every new one.”
Walden called on the activists to elect a Republican governor, although Walden did not say which candidate he preferred.
He said he also hoped the GOP could win back control of the Legislature.
Hashing out issues within the Republican Party was the genesis of the Dorchester Conference, named after the Lincoln City hotel where it first took place in 1965.
Claiming status as the nation’s oldest annual political conference, the original conclave was called by then-state Rep. Robert Packwood to discuss how to come back from the devastating 1964 election in which the liberal Democrat, President Lyndon Johnson, won in a landslide over the conservative Republican, U.S. Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona.
That first group of Republican activists met to discuss how to move the party back to the center and reclaim its place in the American political landscape. In the years since, the conference has welcomed Republicans of all stripes. Packwood, who would go on to become a long-serving U.S. senator before his career imploded in a sexual harassment scandal, has been replaced by a conference board as the guiding force of the event.
Part convention, part debate and the Republican Party’s party (its entertainment centerpiece is the “Tent Show” on the final night), the conference has risen to become one of the mainstays of the Oregon and national political scene.
At its heart is a sometimes free-wheeling interaction between politicians and political activists, with open workshops designed to let local Republicans praise, vent and otherwise cajole the leaders in attendance.
Since its inception, the Dorchester Conference has drawn national GOP leaders such as Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Nelson Rockefeller, Jack Kemp, Elizabeth Dole, Gale Norton and Karl Rove. Oregon Republican heavyweights such as Tom McCall, Mark Hatfield, Norma Paulus, Gordon Smith, and Atiyeh made regular appearances.
This year’s headliner is the controversial conservative political strategist and self-styled “agent provocateur” Roger Stone.
— Reporter: 541-525-5280, firstname.lastname@example.org