SALEM — With one year to go until the 2018 general election, a high-stakes game of political musical chairs is roiling state Republican politics. The resignations, appointments and running for a different office come at a time when the party is teetering on the edge of irrelevance in the Legislature.
Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, said Friday he will seek the top GOP job in the chamber when Senate Republican Leader Ted Ferrioli, R-John Day, steps down to take an appointed position on a regional power authority.
Ferrioli follows Rep. Mark Johnson, R-Hood River, and Rep. John Huffman, R-The Dalles, who both gave up seats to take new jobs. Other lawmakers, including Rep. Sal Esquivel, R-Medford, have said they will not seek re-election.
Knopp, who is a former GOP leader in the House, was asked if he was concerned by uncertainty caused by the departure of so many Republican legislators. His simple response: “No.”
But even one departure could shift the balance in Salem. Democrats currently hold a 35-25 edge in the House and 17-13 edge in the Senate. A pickup of one vote in each would give Democrats a three-fifths supermajority in each chamber, allowing them to pass financial bills without an assist from Republicans.
The fate of the supermajority is focused on Rep. Knute Buehler, R-Bend, who is giving up his swing seat in the Statehouse to run for governor, an office no Republican has won in 35 years.
A win by Buehler in the primary and general elections would upend the Salem power structure. Democrats would need 40 votes in the House and 20 votes in the Senate to override any Gov. Buehler vetoes, tough numbers to reach.
But history is on the Democrats’ side and they hope Buehler’s run has the unintended effect of giving Democrats a supermajority in the House. To run for governor, Buehler cannot run for re-election to the House. His district has a growing Democratic voter registration edge, though a large pool of nonaffiliated voters have helped keep the seat in Republican hands.
Nathan Boddie is the only candidate so far to file for Buehler’s seat. He’s a well-known Bend city councilor — and Democrat. Top Republicans, including Bend Mayor Casey Roats, Deschutes County Commissioner Tammy Baney, and former Rep. Jason Conger have taken a pass on the race.
At the time of his announcement that he was running for governor, Buehler said he would not be actively involved in the search and selection of a replacement in the House.
“That’s up to the caucus,” Buehler said.
The House Republican Caucus is involved in finding a candidate for the seat in Bend but has nothing to report at this point, according to Preston Mann, the caucus spokesman.
Adding to GOP jitters is the status of Rep. Gene Whisnant, R-Sunriver, who has kept an even lower profile than normal. Except for endorsing Buehler for governor, Whisnant has made few comments about politics since the Legislature adjourned in July. Above all, he’s declined to say what his own plans are for 2018. Whisnant endured a bruising 2017 legislative session battle over his bill to bar the construction of a bridge over the Deschutes River near the home of Tim Phillips, a Republican power broker and wealth management consultant.
Whisnant’s district surrounding Bend is more reliably Republican than Buehler’s, though an influx of new residents may reshape the electorate in the future. If Whisnant were to retire, Democrats have said they would take a stab at flipping the district.
Beyond Bend, a string of Republican-held Central Oregon legislative districts from the Hood River to just north of California are in play as lawmakers leave, try to move to other office or face increased challenges from Democrats.
In addition to Ferrioli’s 36,000-square-mile district covering 11 counties, other swaths of red on the electoral map are going through changes, albeit primarily within the confines of the GOP primary.
House Republican Leader Mike McLane, R-Powell Butte, has said he wants to leave the Legislature to become the U.S. attorney for Oregon. There is competition for the job and the Trump administration decision has been glacially slow. McLane has said he will run for re-election if he is not appointed. But to date, he has not filed for re-election with the secretary of state.
“I cannot comment on U.S. attorney appointment process at this time,” said Mann, who also serves as McLane’s spokesman.
Against this backdrop is the looming reapportionment after the 2020 census that could leave lawmakers without their familiar power bases and party voter registration majorities. Chief among them: Knopp, who could see his Bend-centered district shrink geographically to accommodate the rapid — and trending Democratic — population increase in Deschutes County.
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