For most of the past two years, Oregon Democrats have focused on trying to build ironclad supermajorities in the Legislature to work in tandem with Democratic Gov. Kate Brown.
But with polls showing a surprisingly tight governor’s race, a new set of questions have come up: What if Republican Knute Buehler wins?
For the first time since Vic Atiyeh left office in 1987, a Republican would sit in the governor’s chair, overseeing large portions of state government.
“It’s new territory,” said Jim Moore, director of the McCall Center for Civic Engagement at Pacific University. “Nobody has had to ask these questions in a long time.”
In Oregon, the Democrats hold almost all the levers of political power. In addition to the governorship, Democrats hold a 35-25 voting edge in the House and 17-13 in the Senate.
Party leaders have focused on gaining the one vote needed in each chamber to create a supermajority that could pass finance and tax bills without Republican help.
But a Buehler victory would bring up two new numbers: 40 in the House and 20 in the Senate. Those are the thresholds needed to create a two-thirds majority and override any veto by a Gov. Buehler.
That math could lead to a logjam right at the beginning.
“Buehler has said if he doesn’t get a PERS reform bill, he won’t sign anything else,” Moore said, referring to the state employees retirement system.
Moore said Buehler and the Democrats would have to decide early on whether to find common ground or fight it out.
“Would they sit down and negotiate or just start running for the next election?” Moore asked.
Buehler is ready to work with Democrats if the vote goes his way Tuesday, said Monica Wroblewski, his campaign communications director.
“He represents the most Democratic district held by a Republican, so he’s used to building broad coalitions of Republicans, Independents and Democrats,” she said.
House Minority Leader Mike McLane, R-Powell Butte, said Buehler as governor would bring about a more balanced debate.
“With one party in charge of our state government, negotiations in the Capitol are often reduced to negotiations between the left wing of the Democratic Party and the far-left wing of the Democratic Party,” McLane said. “This produces unbalanced and poor outcomes for Oregonians.”
But Christian Gaston, spokesman for Brown’s campaign, said the risk of handing over the executive branch to Buehler is too great.
“I think voters see through Buehler’s efforts to cast himself as a moderate,” Gaston said. “He has a conservative track record.”
Gaston said the governor has a great amount of power, able to change many state policies through executive orders. He pointed to recent Brown executive orders such as one barring drilling in state-controlled coastal waters.
“Gov. Brown has reaffirmed Oregon values again and again,” Gaston said. “Those could be overturned.”
Moore said the last time that the state had a governor in one party and the Legislature held by the other was in the 1990s when Democrat Gov. John Kitzhaber faced off against a Republican-held House and Senate.
“For awhile, Kitzhaber was called ‘Dr. No’ for the number of vetoes he made,” Moore said.
Buehler would be able to install new leaders of the executive branch departments and appoint judges — including justices of the Supreme Court when there is a vacancy. The governor appoints members of over 300 policymaking, regulatory and advisory commissions and boards.
The governor holds the power of granting extradition of suspects to other states, and can commute or pardon those found guilty of crimes. The governor is the superintendent of public schools and commander-in-chief of the national guard.
Buehler could veto the Legislature’s plan for redistricting after the 2020 census.
Moore said if Buehler loses, he would immediately become the top Republican candidate for governor in 2022, when Kate Brown won’t be able to run again and the governor’s office will be wide open.
“Buehler has gained a huge amount of name recognition,” Moore said. “The question is what would he do between now and then?”
— Reporter: 541-640-2750, firstname.lastname@example.org