SALEM — Bend businessman Sam Carpenter is mounting an insurgent bid to become chairman of the Oregon Republican Party, saying he would steer the party toward a more conservative course that fully embraces President Donald Trump.
The state GOP chair has been held for the past four years by Bill Currier, who is seeking a third two-year term at the state party’s organizational meeting Feb. 15-16 in Salem.
“Bill Currier has had his shot at strengthening the Oregon Republican Party and delivering results; getting Republicans elected to office,” Carpenter said in an email to The Bulletin. “Sadly for our Party and for Oregonians his efforts were ineffective, and came up short.”
Paul deWitt, the new Deschutes County Republican chairman, said he would support Carpenter.
“He’s the local candidate, from Bend, but that isn’t the main reason,” deWitt said. “I feel the party has not been successful getting candidates elected, and that has to change. We couldn’t do any worse.”
County chairpersons have discussed Carpenter’s effort in online conversations, deWitt said.
“Some are positive; some are not,” deWitt said. “I can’t say how that will translate into an overall vote.”
Currier said he expects to win re-election as party chairman, along with a slate of party officers that back him.
“We have strong relationships with those county leaders who end up as delegates voting for state leadership,” Currier said. “Those relationships give us a great deal of confidence.”
Carpenter’s move comes against the backdrop of significant losses for Republicans in the November election and recent efforts by Trump to ensure that state party chairs are lined up to support his 2020 re-election bid.
The website Politico reported this week that Trump political aides Bill Stepien and Justin Clark held a December conference call with all Republican state party chairs. These were followed by one-on-one calls.
“We are monitoring, tracking and ensuring the president’s allies are sitting at the top of state parties,” Stepien told Politico.
Currier confirmed Monday he had talked recently with Trump aides about the 2020 campaign and the convention in Charlotte, North Carolina.
“They have been very busy with that,” Currier said of the 2020 campaign. “They want to make sure the convention goes smoothly. We are working closely with them to make sure that Oregon’s delegate selection goes smoothly. I am very proud of the Oregon delegation that went to the 2016 convention.”
Carpenter was a candidate for governor in the May GOP primary. Using an Oregon-themed variation on Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan, Carpenter sought to run as a conservative alternative to Bend’s Knute Buehler, a moderate Republican.
The late entry into the GOP primary by retired Navy aviator Greg Wooldridge, of Portland, split the conservative vote and allowed Buehler to win a plurality of ballots. Buehler lost the November general election to Democratic Gov. Kate Brown by 6 percentage points. Brown continued a Democratic winning streak in governor’s races that goes back to 1986.
In a recent Facebook post, Carpenter said he believed Buehler lost because he strayed from the Republican Party’s base.
“Our most recent Republican gubernatorial candidate — produced and supported by the ORP — was unabashedly pro-choice, pro-sanctuary city, pro-gun restriction, anti-President Trump, and anti-Oregon Republican Party platform,” Carpenter wrote. “How, could THAT possibly happen?”
Carpenter cast his bid for the GOP chair as an extension of his campaign.
“We especially feel an obligation to the 90,000 Republicans who voted for me in the primary race last May,” Carpenter wrote.
In his message to The Bulletin, Carpenter blamed Currier for Buehler’s position at the top of the GOP ticket.
“Mr. Currier demonstrated absolutely no leadership in challenging the Republican nominee for governor, Knute Buehler, who should have been called out on any number of issues, which ultimately led to his defeat,” Carpenter said.
While underlining that the state chair cannot choose which candidates become the party’s nominee, deWitt, the Deschutes County GOP chairman, said Currier could have been more proactive in trying to discourage Wooldridge from entering the race and splintering the conservative vote.
“We ended up with a nominee for governor who was pretty soft on issues that are important to most Republicans,” deWitt said. “He was critical of President Trump, often in gratuitous ways.”
Besides Buehler’s defeat, Democrats in November won supermajorities in both the state House and Senate that could allow them to raise taxes without seeking Republican support.
Carpenter likened Currier to the head coach of a winless football team.
“The only reasonable correction would be, change the coach and leadership staff of the team,” Carpenter said.
The election results set off a debate in the state Republican Party. Should the GOP seek voters in the middle of the political spectrum, or move to the right and more forcefully embrace Trump’s platform? Advocates of a centrist approach point to voter registration where Republicans now trail not only Democrats but nonaffiliated voters, too.
Carpenter advocates the second course, saying he believes it is crucial for Republican state leaders to aggressively back Trump.
“Board members must give the same level of support to our Republican President,” Carpenter wrote recently on his website, makeoregon greatagain.com. “We’re Republicans and he is the Republican leader of our Party.”
Currier said the state party actively backs Trump. As for Buehler, Currier said he won the primary and deserved the party’s full support even if his views were more centrist than many party members’.
“Candidates are self-selected,” Currier said. “The party does not select who wins the primary — the voters do. To me, this is where Mr. Carpenter is going off-track if he is trying to get into the business of who runs rather than providing an environment where the best candidate comes out on top. No candidate is perfect. They are going to have a flaw that someone, somewhere in the party isn’t going to like.”
Currier said attempts to force the Oregon party into a national GOP political template would be a misstep.
“If we try to take the national scene and apply it to Oregon, it is not going to work,” Currier said. “Oregon is different. A majority of the voters in the state did not support President Trump. We have different issues, Oregon issues. We should put forward what is best for Oregon rather than trying to replicate something on a national scale.”
Carpenter said he would have become involved in primary races much earlier to boost candidates who embrace the party platform and make sure that in general elections, Democrats do not run unopposed.
“It will be my job to head up an ORP that will recruit, screen, train, protect and promote candidates who are faithful to Republican ideals and to our state and national platforms and leadership,” Carpenter told The Bulletin. “Last election, we had 16 out of 60 house districts with no Republican candidate. It’s a sad state of affairs.”
Currier questioned whether Carpenter’s personal political ambitions would get in the way of running the state party if he were to become chair. In addition to running for governor last year, Carpenter lost the GOP primary for the U.S. Senate in 2016.
“If you are doing your job of party chair, you are not setting yourself up for higher office,” Currier said. “I look at it like a three-legged stool. There’s the voters, the party and the candidates. When you try to have a party run by candidates or candidates run by the party, it doesn’t work out. It has to be a partnership.”
Though he believes he will win next month’s vote in Salem, Currier said he was taking Carpenter’s challenge seriously.
“He is working hard to enter the party leadership,” Currier said. “I don’t discount his efforts at all.”
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