By Taylor W. Anderson

The Bulletin

Dennis Richardson ended Republicans’ drought of statewide office Tuesday night, and in doing so offers new hope for a political party that has struggled for decades in Oregon, political insiders said Wednesday.

Richardson beat Democrat Brad Avakian, who remains the state’s labor commissioner, in a race that also included candidates from the Independent, Libertarian and Pacific Green parties.

The win makes Richardson the first Republican elected to the position since Norma Paulus won in 1980. Gordon Smith, Oregon’s former senator last elected in 2002, was the last Republican the state’s voters picked in a statewide race.

The change turns a page on Oregon politics, and Republicans are eagerly looking among themselves for the next candidate who could replicate Richardson’s win in 2018, when Gov. Kate Brown, who won her race Tuesday, would face election to a full term.

“All the sudden you’ve got a fight amongst Republicans for the standard-bearer against Kate Brown,” said Len Bergstein, a veteran political consultant.

Bill Currier, chairman of the Oregon Republican Party, said the party “broke the psychological barrier that Republicans can’t win a statewide race.” But he said it wasn’t clear who might emerge as a candidate who could repeat Richardson’s win.

“Everybody talks about Knute (Buehler) because he’s probably the closest definition to a rising star that we have,” Currier said.

Buehler, Bend’s Republican representative who was elected to his second term Tuesday night, is often brought up as a moderate Republican who has his eye on the governor’s mansion, in part thanks to his own public statements and in part thanks to others’.

“Who I think is positioned to run for governor is Knute Buehler,” said Greg Leo, a lobbyist and longtime Republican insider. “Buehler has won in a tough district, and he’s won well. He’s been positioned as a new Republican.”

The Bend House seat Buehler won Tuesday night mirrors voter trends statewide, where the Democratic Party holds an 11-point edge over Republicans. About a third of all voters in Bend and across Oregon are either independent or members of the Independent Party.

While he’s joined majority Republicans in opposing gun measures, the minimum wage increase and housing bills that all passed over the last two years, he has claimed independence by voting for several big-ticket Democratic priorities, such as increasing the amount of renewable energy private utilities must use to generate electricity.

That kind of independence helps him win over people like Bruce Abernethy, a Democrat and former Bend mayor who on Tuesday was elected to the Bend City Council.

“I would love to see him as governor,” Abernethy said last month.

Shortly after declaring victory Tuesday night over his Democratic rival, Gena Goodman-Campbell, Buehler said he might be open to a run for higher office.

“I don’t do this to run for higher office, I do this to solve problems,” Buehler told The Bulletin. “If I can do that in my current position, I’m happy with it. If not, and I feel like I can be more productive in another position, I’ll do that. We’ll see how things pan out over the next year.”

Buehler publicly explored a run for governor shortly after the 2015 legislative session, but pulled back and ran for re-election instead.

If he chose to run in 2018, Republican insiders say, he could face a tough task of winning a primary election against a more conservative party member.

Buehler, who has consistently publicly announced he’s pro-choice, has a contentious relationship with Oregon Right to Life, the state’s largest anti-abortion group that also seeks to elect like-minded candidates over pro-choice politicians.

In his 2014 run, the group recommended Bend vote for Buehler, a declaration that’s a step lower than an endorsement. It then withdrew all support as Buehler repeated his pro-choice stance on the campaign trail, and didn’t get involved in the 2016 election.

“If Right to Life is not behind you and you’re a Republican you’re going to lose,” said Rep. Bill Post, a Keizer Republican who has supported Buehler in the past.

Lois Anderson, director of political operations for Oregon Right to Life, declined to entertain any talk of the 2018 election on Wednesday.

In 2012, when Buehler challenged then-Secretary of State Kate Brown in her re-election bid, he didn’t face a primary challenge.

Jim Bernau is the founder of Willamette Valley Vineyards who said he supports both Democrats and Republicans in the Legislature. He called Oregon’s Republican Party history of voters picking socially conservative candidates over moderates in primaries “a systemic problem that will lead to party failure.”

“It will lead to the disintegration of the Republican Party,” Bernau said.

But Post says Richardson’s victory shows the Republican Party might not need to drift toward the middle in order to win big races.

“Oregon Republicans are always shying away, saying we can’t run a real conservative in statewide races because we’re going to lose,” Post said. “Well you don’t get much more conservative than Dennis Richardson.”

— Reporter: 406-589-4347, tanderson@bendbulletin.com

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