Knute Buehler said he plans to stay on the Oregon political stage, although he will step out of the spotlight for awhile.
Nearly two months after losing the race for governor to Democrat Kate Brown, the two-term Republican House representative from Bend is tying up loose ends in Salem and making plans for his post-government future.
In his first extensive interview since Election Day, Buehler, 54, said he was sifting through his options, and had made a few decisions: He isn’t going to return to being an orthopedic surgeon. He is staying in Bend. He won’t back President Trump for re-election. He won’t be running for any office in 2020.
“You never say never about the future, but, no, I will not be running for anything two years from now,” Buehler said in a telephone interview Thursday. “The political environment is not good right now for a person who is independent-minded and doesn’t fit into narrow partisan categories.”
That doesn’t mean he is going to follow in the footsteps of Chris Dudley, the 2010 Republican candidate for governor who narrowly lost to Democrat John Kitzhaber, then disappeared from the political scene, eventually moving to Southern California.
“I’ll be announcing more about my plans in the next few weeks,” Buehler said.
He’s talking with the League of Women Voters and others about an effort to turn over reapportionment of political districts after the 2020 census to a non-partisan panel. The new lines that would go into effect with the 2022 election would be drawn by the Legislature. Buehler said the plan he is working on follows recommendations made by Secretary of State Dennis Richardson.
“We’re hoping to get a bill through the Legislature, but in the current situation that is doubtful, so we will also be aiming at a ballot measure for the 2020 election,” Buehler said.
Buehler’s campaign for governor started out as a longshot in 2017, but in the weeks before the Nov. 6 election, the gap had narrowed to the point that some national analysts were calling the race “a toss-up.”
The tight battle fueled a campaign in which Brown and Buehler together raised $39.9 million, more than double the previous record for a governor’s race in Oregon. Most of it went into a barrage of television ads and social media messages.
The election night result was a disappointment, with Brown posting a solid 6 percentage point win, driven by an overwhelming margin in the Portland area.
Buehler appeared at the Sentinel Hotel in Portland to concede.
“Tonight, I lost the election, but I do think this competitive governor’s race has made all of us better,” Buehler told the subdued crowd. “Democracy has won. Competition is good for all of us.”
Buehler said he called Brown and got her cellphone voicemail.
“I never received a call back,” Buehler said.
Brown’s victory speech at the Hilton Portland Downtown called the win “a slam dunk,” which many Republicans, and others, saw as an unnecessarily harsh smack at Buehler.
“I think it highlights what we said throughout the campaign, that Gov. Brown lacks leadership skills,” Buehler said. “People are supposed to be gracious in victory and realize the value in the healing process after an election. It’s a time to take a step in improving the state of Oregon for all the people who voted in the election.”
Asked if there was anything he would have done differently in the campaign, Buehler demurred.
“I don’t want to play armchair quarterback,” he said. “The election is over. We should be forward thinking. There’s not much value in going over the past.”
Buehler, who ran as a moderate Republican, said he was disappointed the election resulted in an even wider partisan split in Oregon. Democrats gained new supermajorities in the state House and Senate, to go along with Brown in the governor’s office.
“Not only did Republicans lose, but the Democratic caucus shifted further to the extreme left,” Buehler said. “They are using their political hegemony to quickly abandon any previous veneer of bipartisanship. It’s a race to the left. Moderate voices are disappearing.”
Buehler lamented the reaction of some Republicans, who want to use the election’s outcome as justification to shift the party even further to the right.
“I think there is a natural temptation for Republicans to retreat, to dig into well-tread trenches, and play the role of opponents to everything, to be the party of ‘no,’” Buehler said. “That is not a recipe for future success.”
After the election, some analysts speculated that Buehler could use his high statewide name recognition to run in 2020 for the U.S. Senate seat held by Democrat Jeff Merkley. Or if Richardson, a Republican battling health issues, opted not to run for re-election for secretary of state, Buehler could try again for the job he sought in 2012, only to lose to the then-incumbent, Kate Brown.
Buehler ruled out both 2020 races, and didn’t categorically shut the door on a possible 2022 run for governor again, when Brown will not be able to seek re-election because of term limits.
Buehler said he will remain in the GOP and does not plan on supporting the re-election of President Trump.
“I didn’t vote for him in 2016, and I won’t be voting for him in 2020,” Buehler said.
On the personal front, Buehler said that after the election he went with his wife, Patty Buehler, and some friends to Colombia.
“We have always liked to travel internationally to destinations that aren’t tourist destinations,” Buehler said. “Colombia is a fascinating place with a lot of potential. There has been so much conflict there for so long, not just narcoterrorism, but civil war.”
Back in Oregon, Buehler has been winding down his legislative and campaign offices.
“Because we were so close, so long, so late, a lot of my staff did not have parachutes lined up for their next jobs,” Buehler said. “I’m helping them on their job hunts. They are some great young people.”
Buehler said he would again start working on his medical product and design business, and will step up his consulting and appearing as an expert witness in court proceedings. While Patty will retain her eye surgery medical practice in Bend, Buehler said he expected the next few years to include travel, domestically and internationally.
“But Bend will be our home base,” he said.
—Reporter: 541-640-2750, gwarner@bendbulletin