Knute Buehler seeks to model Oregon campaign after blue state Republican governors

November 2, 2018

The vaunted blue wave is doing no favors for perhaps the nation’s bluest governor this election cycle, as Oregon Democratic Gov. Kate Brown faces an unexpectedly persistent challenge from Republican state legislator Knute Buehler as she seeks her first full term in office in Tuesday’s vote.

It’s a race that already has bucked a number of trends: Oregon has not elected a Republican chief executive since the Reagan administration and national Democrats are already banking on a number of wins at the statehouse level, including a possible net gain of up to 10 governorships.

The 58-year-old Ms. Brown benefits from a long career in state government, the powers of incumbency and name recognition, and a historical claim to be the nation’s first openly bisexual governor. Democrats control both houses of the state legislature, both Senate seats and four of the Beaver State’s five House seats.

After succeeding scandal-plagued Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber two years ago, Ms. Brown has built up a relentlessly liberal record, opposing offshore drilling and gun rights, supporting reproductive and gay rights, and taking on the Trump administration repeatedly over issues such as immigrants and sanctuary cities.

But that hasn’t been enough to shake Mr. Buehler, 54, an orthopedic surgeon and onetime Rhodes Scholar with deep roots in the state.

National prognosticators such as the Cook Report and Real Clear Politics rate the race as slightly in the incumbent’s favor or a toss-up. The Real Clear Politics average of recent polls gave Ms. Brown a slight 3.6 percentage point edge, and a new poll Wednesday from Hoffman Research Group pared that lead down to 3 points within the poll’s margin of error.

Sensing an opportunity, the Republican Governors Association has poured more than $1 million into Mr. Buehler’s campaign coffers, which also have benefited from a reported record $2.5 million personal donation from Nike co-founder Phil Knight. Fearing an upset, the Democratic Governors Association and liberal groups such as Emily’s List have rushed to Ms. Brown’s defense.

While Oregon Democrats fiercely challenge his claims of moderation, Mr. Buehler appears to be channeling the successful electoral recipe used by Republican governors running for in liberal states, such as Charlie Baker in Massachusetts and Larry Hogan in Maryland.

The Baker-Hogan model

In an age of bitter partisan warfare and polarization fueled by both President Trump and his Democratic antagonists, the nonconfrontational Mr. Baker and Mr. Hogan are among the most popular governors in the country, and both appear to be cruising to re-election.

Mr. Trump plans no trips to Oregon to help the GOP nominee, and Mr. Buehler, who has criticized the president on a number of occasions, sounds more than happy to keep his distance. He frequently notes on the campaign trail that his own state House district of Bend has more registered Democrats than Republicans.

“For me to get elected in Bend, I have to form a robust coalition of not only Republicans, but independents and moderate Democrats,” Mr. Buehler recently told Oregon’s KATU radio. “And that’s what I see happening right now. It’s very encouraging to me.”

The Portland-based Oregonian, the state’s largest newspaper, surprised many by endorsing Mr. Buehler, arguing the race should not be about Mr. Trump or wedge issues such as immigration and abortion, but about bread-and-butter issues of importance to ordinary Oregonians.

“The Oregon governor’s race is about who can best lead Oregon in tackling the human and economic crises unfolding on our home turf,” the paper wrote in an Oct. 13 editorial. “From the state’s distressed K-12 education system to the critical need for pension reform to encouraging more affordable-housing construction, Oregon is running out of time to responsibly address these challenges.”

Ms. Brown had shown “little vision and no urgency” in her two years in office to tackle those issues, the paper said.

Mr. Buehler’s ads reflect his ambition to be a West Coast Larry Hogan, stressing his support of same-sex marriage, the need to address climate change and his plan to shore up the state’s finances.

National vs. local

By contrast, Ms. Brown has tried to nationalize the race at every turn, arguing that special interests are fighting her campaign partly because of her outspoken opposition to the Trump administration’s agenda.

Advised to stick to issues closer to home, “My argument is, ‘Hell no,’” the governor recently told The Huffington Post. “We need strong leadership to counteract the Trump administration.”

Democrats have tried to undercut Mr. Buehler’s claims to moderation, pointing to votes he made in the state legislature against sanctuary for immigrants, tougher gun laws, and higher fuel-emissions standards.

And keeping his distance from Mr. Trump could hurt Mr. Buehler in another way, depressing enthusiasm from conservative voters in the state’s far more conservative eastern rural precincts.

The Democratic governor has had a small but enduring lead in the polls, and she may benefit from the decision last week by third-party candidate Patrick Starnes of the Independent Party of Oregon to pull out of the race and endorse her. Oregon political prognosticators say Mr. Buehler faces an uphill climb to attract enough independents and wavering Democrats, while holding on to his GOP base, to notch the upset.

But then again, few this summer in Portland or in Washington thought the race would even be worth watching just days before voters head to the polls.