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A deep-split GOP for Oregon governor

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Just 5.3 percent of the vote theoretically could produce the next Republican nominee for governor, far fewer votes than a state Senate general election winner would need.

The primary winner likely will get considerably more than that, of course. But since every candidate on the ballot will pick up at least a dusting of votes, this means predicting a winner, or figuring out what the win says about the Republican electorate, approaches guesswork. A viral social media message at the right moment through the right channels could, in such a fractured field, be enough.

There is no obvious frontrunner, only a few names familiar to people who follow Oregon politics, and no statewide election winners and no incumbent officeholders above the county level.

Shall we sift among the 19 official contenders?

Seven have filed either no finance report or reported no campaign finance activity. So on the list of candidates unlikely to win big, we probably can place Raymond Baldwin, Court Boice, David A Burch (listed as “unemployed”), Reed Christensen (also “unemployed”), Tim McCloud, John G Presco and Stefan G Strek. Slight extra credit to Strek, though, for listing his prior government experience as “unmentionable.”

Those with enough backing to raise substantial funds have to be taken seriously. According to filings from last week, these are the top-raising (six-figure) Republican governor candidates in order: Bob Tiernan ($1.2 million), Christine Drazan ($1.1 million), Jessica Gomez ($556,566), Bridget Barton ($400,467), Stan Pulliam ($295,680), Bud Pierce ($235,267), Marc Thielman ($167,090), Kerry McQuisten ($116,773) and Nick Hess ($102,907).

Tiernan and Drazan have raised more money between them than all the others put together, but that may be a little misleading. Of Tiernan’s haul, for example, $500,000 came from a single source: a company in Berkeley, California, with which Tiernnan had a past relationship – and so doesn’t suggest much about in-state support. Much of Drazan’s support comes from the kind of establishment backers many Republican voters aren’t enamored with these days. Money is important but not always decisive.

What else might be?

Here’s a name absent from both previous lists: Bill Sizemore (employed as a general contractor, raised $12,421). His money is modest, but anyone who’s watched Oregon politics knows who he is: Organizer of numerous from-the-right ballot and legislative efforts (many under the banner of Oregon Taxpayers United, which he founded). He also lost a gubernatorial election in 1998, to Democrat John Kitzhaber, in a landslide, and has had legal run-ins since, but he may check all the now-popular boxes for many Republicans. He should not be written off.

Nor should we write off Tiernan or Drazan, and not just because of money: They too have significant statewide profiles and extensive statewide connections. Both are former legislators – any legislator, if they’re active at all, can develop an array of connections – and both have held leadership positions among Republicans (Tiernan as state party chair, Drazan as House minority leader). On the basis of resume, either is a plausible major-party nominee.

Salem physician Bud Pierce falls into somewhere near this category as well, since he was a Republican nominee for governor before, in 2016, losing to still-Governor Kate Brown. But Pierce’s loss may not help him now, and his campaign message (his web page leads: “A prescription for Oregon. Sane. Secure. Stable.”) seems unlikely to jack up the heart rate.

All four, on their websites and elsewhere, point to their backgrounds and a call for a new direction in Salem. But will that hit the bullseye this year? The base may be looking for something edgier, and maybe fresher than Sizemore, who cut a bigger figure in Oregon a quarter-century ago.

This brings us to the third? (second) tier which includes Independence electronics business owner Gomez, Lake Oswego publisher Barton, Sandy Mayor Pulliam and Alsea School Superintendent Thielman. They all have decently funded campaigns, but depend on striking lightning in a bottle. Maybe one of them will.

Gomez so far has mostly played to her business background (she’s hardly alone in that), but does have an appealing back story. Barton got international attention with her video ad proclaiming her the “No Horse Sh!% Outsider”; the base may like the attitude). Pulliam has declared a “war on woke” that may help with the culture-war crowd, though the fallout of reports about his past swingers explorations remains unclear. (It did make him a popular subject of discussion, which could help.) Thielman has made a name with his school district battles over pandemic masking and war on teaching about climate change; he may match where much of the Republican Party is now (“he’s got a plan to turn socialism on its head”). So to an extent McQuisten, who on her website identifies with the controversial governors of South Dakota and Florida (if you like those governors, she suggests, that’s what you’d get in Oregon); she has also spotlighted a meetup with Eric Trump.

Then there’s Hess, running the other direction, invoking names like Mark Hatfield and Vic Atiyeh and saying, “extremist political rhetoric damages our ability to work together to find common ground and reasonable solutions to our state’s many challenges.” Will the Republican primary electorate buy this – or rather, might a large enough slice do so?

There is, simply, no obvious nominee. The question lies in which appeal – tried and true, strong connections, a lighting-rod message – brings in just enough to win the largest sliver of the Republican vote. Once we know that, we’ll know something about this year’s version of Oregon Republicans.

This column has appeared in the Oregon Capital Chronicle.
 

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