Knute Buehler has more name recognition, more government experience and 14 times more campaign money than any of his opponents in the race to become Oregon’s next Republican nominee for governor.
But the Bend orthopedic surgeon is taking nothing for granted. He spent one of the final weeks before Tuesday’s primary attacking one of his leading Republican rivals. The race that once seemed like an easy cruise for Buehler may be tighter than expected.
Buehler’s primary focus has been Sam Carpenter, the candidate in the race who has most closely tied his fortunes to President Donald Trump. The 68-year-old business consultant has adopted the campaign slogan “Make Oregon Great Again.”
In distancing himself from Trump and focusing on incumbent Gov. Kate Brown, Buehler “has certainly played to the general election voter” during his primary campaign, said John Horvick, political director for DHM Research, a Portland market research and polling firm. “The typical Republican electorate is pretty conservative, probably 65 to 66 years old. They still strongly back the president.”
Buehler launched a radio ad calling attention to the 21 tax liens filed against Carpenter and Carpenter’s telecommunications company. He also called out Carpenter for a homosexual slur allegedly written or uttered by a Carpenter campaign official.
“I’m joining the Oregon Tea Party and a chorus of voices in condemning Sam Carpenter – including (fellow GOP candidates) Greg Wooldridge and Bruce Cuff – for his false attacks and repeated lies,” Buehler, 53, said last Wednesday.
Carpenter, a 68-year-old business turnaround consultant, said he’s being targeted because he’s beating Buehler with traditional, conservative Republicans.
There are other reasons to question Buehler’s lock on the nomination. Political newcomer Greg Wooldridge, a former U.S. Navy pilot who led the Blue Angels, handily won the straw poll at the Republicans’ annual Dorchester Conference in March.
In all, nine people are running in the Republican primary. Other candidates include Keenan Bohach of Keizer, Gresham-based Jonathan Edwards III, Brett Hyland of Portland, David Stauffer, also of Portland, Jeff Smith of Elgin, and Jack Tracy, of Lebanon.
Only Buehler, Carpenter and Wooldridge have raised more than $20,000 for their campaigns.
While some pundits say this year’s election will be a referendum on Trump, Buehler has strived to make it a referendum on Kate Brown. It’s unacceptable, he said, that at a time when the booming economy is generating record tax revenue, the Brown administration has repeatedly sought new and higher taxes. If elected, he vows to sign no spending bill until Salem launches meaningful reform of the public employee retirement system.
“I want to be governor for a simple reason: to fix the big problems in Oregon that have been avoided, ignored and made a lot worse by Gov. Brown over the last three years,” he said.
The son of a butcher and homemaker, both high school dropouts, Buehler grew up in Roseburg. He attended public schools and got his college degree from Oregon State before going on to medical school. He also studied politics and economics at Oxford.
He works as an orthopedic surgeon specializing in knee and hip-replacements.
A strong public education was his “stepping stone” to a better life, he said. His top priority, he said, is to fix the state’s “underperforming” schools.
Buehler lost to Brown in the 2012 race for secretary of state. He then won a seat in the Oregon House of Representatives in a Democratic-leaning district in Bend, which Buehler says demonstrates his crossover appeal.
He has drawn some big checks from supporters, led by Nike co-founder Phil Knight, who contributed $500,000. In all, Buehler has raised about $3.4 million from 11,000 donors.
At times, Buehler sounds like a card-carrying Democrat. When asked about his proudest achievement as a lawmaker, he says it was the 2015 bill that provided women access to prescription birth control without having to visit a doctor.
Several states have adopted similar legislation, he said.
“I’ve spent four years in the Legislature as a freshman and sophomore representative for the minority party,” he said. “It’s been like getting a PhD in politics. I have no hard power. But it’s hard to deny the power of a good idea.”
Last June, Oregon conservatives Bruce Starr and Derrick Kitts embarked on a high-stakes recruiting mission. Dissatisfied with Buehler and Carpenter, they sought another option.
They approached Greg Wooldridge, a retired U.S. Navy captain and jet pilot turned motivational speaker who has lived in Oregon since 2006. The 71-year-old political neophyte was stunned at the notion and said he wasn’t interested. Then in early February, just three months before the primary, Wooldridge changed his mind.
“I finally decided this had to be done,” Wooldridge said. “It was a final call to duty.”
While a newcomer to politics, Wooldridge does have experience as an administrator. Between “call back” Blue Angel tours, Wooldridge commanded the Naval Air Station at Lemoore, Calif., which he said was akin to running a city.
Education, infrastructure and PERS reform are his three top priorities. He will call for a 25-student maximum in Oregon classrooms — a change that would cost hundreds of millions of dollars a year — and promises he would build more roads and more highway lanes to cope with growing population and congestion.
Bruce Cuff, a Marion County real estate salesman who got 9 percent of the vote in the 2014 Republican primary, withdrew from the 2018 primary last month and asked his supporters to back Wooldridge.
Wooldridge remains far behind Buehler in the money race. He’s raised $234,350.
Kitts, who is advising the Wooldridge campaign, said the novice politician has a knack for connecting with people. “Dollar for dollar, I think we have done an astoundingly effective job,” Kitts said. “Greg is working harder than any of the other candidates.”
After buying a telecommunications company in Bend in the 1990s, Carpenter struggled for years to make a go of it. Both the Oregon Department of Revenue and the IRS filed liens seeking payment of back taxes.
In the end, Carpenter says, the company, called Centraltel, regained solid financial footing and managed to pay the back taxes. Carpenter wrote a book about the long effort and found a new career as a business turnaround consultant. He claims he’s consulted for some 500 companies over the years.
Born in Port Leyden, N.Y., Carpenter moved to Oregon 40 years ago. He ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in 2016.
His top three goals if elected:
— Reverse the status of any Oregon sanctuary city for illegal immigrants.
— Protect the 2nd Amendment and gun rights.
— Stop taxpayer funding of abortions.
Carpenter has raised just over $230,000, including $122,000 he loaned his campaign.
Carpenter warned his fellow Republicans that their failure to wholly embrace Trump will cost them in the primary and in the November general election. He predicted a “red trifecta” with the Republicans retaking the House, the Senate and the Governor’s office.
After focusing his attacks on Brown for the entire primary season, Buehler went after Carpenter last week, pointing out the tax liens filed against him and his company.
“We’re being attacked mercilessly. It’s because we’re in the lead,” Carpenter said.
Len Bergstein, a veteran Portland communications and political consultant, described Buehler as “the best-prepared candidate the Republicans have put up in three to four cycles.” Yet, he agreed that the races seems to have tightened. “I’m hearing there’s a fair amount of anxiety that the Trump-Tea Party crowd has consolidated around one candidate,” he said.
— Jeff Manning