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Report from Dorchester

Turnout was substantial at Dorschester XLII (42, that is) at Seaside on a cool but pleasant Friday evening: These Republicans want back the governorship, and the prospects for doing that were on tap. It looked like around 500 or; if the official estimate was closer to 600, we won’t quibble. It was a substantial group.

Dorchester conference at SeasideBut which way to go? The decision seemed tougher the more this crowd pondered it.

A moment about Dorchester: This is an annual gathering of Oregon Republicans, founded (in largest part) by Robert Packwood, later a U.S. Senator – the Dorchester conferences were one of the devices he used early in his career to catapult his way to statewide prominence. It’s very much a private event (albeit well-publicized, with portions like the Friday night event open to the public) which allows Republicans, outside of any formal structure, to meet, interact, discuss and figure out what and who they’re all about. It’s a good idea any party in any state could adopt to benefit. (Hello, Washington Republicans and Idaho Democrats.)

It can be most useful of all when a party has an important decision looming ahead, as the Oregon Republicans do in choosing among gubernatorial candidates. The sense Friday night seemed to be that they still – and not as a result of dissatisfaction or disapproval – were figuring out how best to weight in.

There are, in all, seven Republican candidates for governor; three of them were given time to speak to the crowd, and these are three that, realistically, have the support and organization to stand a credible chance of winning. (A couple of others, Gordon Leitch and W.C. Ames, did rent tables at Dorchester even though they had no platform.) A purely private group like Dorchester can readily do that.

And it did a good job of giving visiblity to constituent groups and vendors and bringing people together. It gave political talk radio KPAM a shot at the big Oregon names; we observed the interview of Senator Gordon Smith, for one.

(An obligatory mention here before we get into the governor’s race. On the board listing the donor contributors to Dorchester one name topped the list, above all others: Wal-Mart. And Wal-Mart was the only organization not specifically political in orientation to have its own table in the Dorchester vendor room.)

All three major candidates – Jason Atkinson (backers in white t-shirts), Kevin Mannix (green) and Ron Saxton (red) – were well represented with campaign workers and all had cheering sections at the debate. If Saxton’s sounded somewhat the largest at first, all three were getting roughly similar applause as the event proceeded. (Nice moderation, too, by Representative Greg Walden, who poked some fun at the upon-a-time rumors about his own possible run for governor.)

A Dorchester panel developing individualized questions for the candidates did a pungent job.

Kevin Mannix on KPAM at Dorchester

For Mannix, the point of the question was: You’ve run over and over, never won statewide (including in the last governor’s race, when he narrowly lost to Democrat Ted Kulongoski), everyone already knows you, and, well, are voters getting tired of you? His response – noting that Oregon has a history of defeating candidates for governor before electing them – made coherent sense but may have fallen short as a convincer. (There was also the matter of the jowly caricature on his campaign signs which didn’t do justice to his appearance.) Still, a lot of people there liked him, and there seemed to be some real affection growing out of his recent tenure as state party chair.

For Atkinson, the question had to do with his alternative and grass-roots campaign approach: Candidates who rely on such methods usually do so because they haven’t got the money, organization and familiar name to run a more conventional race. Atkinson’s response to that was necessarily a great convincer, either. But Atkinson, though relatively new as a candidate on the statewide stage (and considerably younger than Saxton or Mannix) had something else: Major campaign skills and charisma, and a deft sense of addressing a broad audience. He easily had the strongest campaign skills of the three candidates, and you got the sense that if he loses this race, he could easily still go places in the years ahead.

There was another curiousity about Atkinson. Though he and his father (a former state Republican chair) have a long history of social and religious conservatism, not a smidgen of that was in evidence Friday – in fact, based on his appearance at Dorchester, you’d guess he was the most moderate of the three candidates.

By contrast, Ron Saxton, usually pegged as the most moderate of the three, sounded – in feel and sense if not strictly in verbiage – the most conservative of the three, and aggressively so. That in turn drew this barbed Dorchester question: In 2002 you ran against the PERS retirement fund issue, and this time against illegal aliens. Are you running the risk of having the Republican Party tagged as a group of blamers of unpopular groups? It was a great question (and one directly suggesting a Democratic strategy in response), and one Saxton didn’t ever quite answer – he said his criticisms were about failures of leadership rather than attacks on groups, which didn’t quite resolve the matter. Saxton had another problem: Probably in an attempt to very carefully walk a more conservative line this election than he did in 2002, while not abandoning the rationale of why he could still appeal to the great middle, he came across as bland. All that said, he still clearly has some of the mystique of the winner-that-might-have-been-last-time. The prospect is still tantalizing: Is this the guy who could do it?

The audience seemed divided.

UPDATE: On Sunday, the Dorchester straw poll was held, and the preferences were decisive. Saxton took 162 votes for first place; he’s been sold as The Man Who Could Do It, and the argument seems to be sinking in. A close second place – and we’re guessing here that our take on Atkinson’s charisma was shared by others – went to Atkinson, with 151 votes. Mannix came in a distant third; our thought is that his explanation of how his multiple losses can lead to a win now just didn’t satisfy.

This space has been saying for some time now, don’t write off Atkinson. We reiterate that, as the campaign nears its final turns and people start taking a closer look.

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