Featured Stories

Other Pamplin Media Group sites


Young voices: GOP has a future in Oregon

But Portland City Club panelists agree a long road is ahead.


TRIBUNE PHOTO: PETER WONG - City Club of Portland members heard a discussion about the future of the Republican Party in Oregon with, from left, Moderator Michelle Cole, state Rep. John Davis, Julia Rabadi and Ben WestThree young voices say the Republican Party has promising prospects in Oregon, despite dismal results in the recent past.

One of them is Ben West of Portland, who says the GOP can capitalize on the perception that the next generation of Americans will be worse off than their parents and preceding generations.

“That’s not American, and that nerve has struck people,” he says. “That is why you are seeing all these different candidates get some traction. I think the same could happen in Oregon.”

West is best known as one of the plaintiffs in the federal cases that led an end to Oregon’s ban on same-sex marriage. He was one of the participants in a panel discussion at the City Club of Portland.

West also appeared in a television ad for Dr. Monica Wehby, the GOP nominee who lost to Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley in 2014.

West and Julia Rabadi, president of the Young Republicans of Oregon, agree that a Republican resurgence should be focused on economic issues that can draw wide support.

“Social issues do not work with young people,” says Rabadi, who was president of the College Republicans while at Portland State University. “They turn them off.”

Republicans hold majorities in the U.S. House and Senate, and their largest number of governorships and state legislative seats since the 1920s.

A generation ago, Republicans held both U.S. Senate seats, two of Oregon’s five U.S. House seats, the governorship and all but one of the statewide executive offices. From 1995 to 2003, they also controlled both chambers of the Oregon Legislature while a Democrat was governor.

But Oregon Republicans have not elected one of their own to statewide partisan office since 1996, when Gordon Smith won a U.S. Senate seat. Smith was re-elected in 2002 but lost to Merkley in 2008.

“We are dealing with the baggage from the success that may not work in similar ways in other states,” says state Rep. John Davis of Wilsonville, who was the youngest Republican lawmaker when he was first elected in 2012.

Davis says it’s too early to tell how Oregon Republicans will fare in 2016, when there will be an off-cycle election for governor — the term will be just two years — and open-seat races for secretary of state and treasurer. (Democratic incumbents are seeking re-election as attorney general and U.S. senator.)

“The reality is that most people are focusing on the presidential race. That is a challenge, particularly in a state that does not currently have any Republicans in statewide office,” Davis says.

“But I would challenge the assertion that nobody who is qualified or interesting is jumping into the race.”

For secretary of state, Davis says, there’s a primary contest between Dennis Richardson, a former state representative from Southern Oregon and the 2014 nominee against then-Gov. John Kitzhaber, and Lane County Commissioner Sid Leiken.

For governor, there is Dr. William “Bud” Pierce, a Salem oncologist; for treasurer, Jeff Gudman, a Lake Oswego city councilor, and for U.S. senator, Lane County Commissioner Faye Stewart.

As of October registration figures, Republicans account for just 30 percent of Oregon’s electorate, Democrats 38 percent. The third major party, the Independent Party, has 5 percent. Voters not affiliated with any party make up 24 percent.

A long drought

Although Republicans dominated Oregon’s governorship between 1927 and 1987 — there were just three Democrats during that span, for a total of 10 years — Democrats have held the office since then.

Republicans also lost their majority in the Oregon House in 2006 after 16 years — they did gain a 30-30 tie in 2010, but lost it two years later — and have not been the majority in the Senate since 2002.

“The dominant voice is of one party, and it’s hard to break through that,” West says. “When you face the development of overcoming a mountain and you hear only one loud voice, it’s hard to break through with your message.”

But West and Rabadi acknowledge, based on personal experience, that it’s hard to break through stereotypes.

West says a number of gays and lesbians were taken aback when West appeared in an ad on behalf of Wehby’s candidacy — other plaintiffs endorsed Merkley — and Rabadi says she also faced personal consequences while she was at PSU.

“The worst experiences are when your friends of color find out that you are a Republican, and some of the Democrats on campus find out you are a Republican and a person of color. To be a person of color and a Republican is a no-no to them,” she says. “Unfortunately, it’s cost me several friends.”

Rabadi says she is a Republican because of her parents, who emigrated from Jordan to the United States. Her father established a small business, “and America is the one country that he found success in.”

She is on the board of the Oregon League of Minority Voters.

Diversity in GOP

Davis grew up in a family of Democrats.

But he says that contrary to popular impression, he has found Republicans to be more diverse than Democrats.

“When I am in the caucus room with my colleagues — or in a roomful of Republicans in King City — it’s a pretty lively crowd with an incredibly diverse set of viewpoints,” he says.

He says because of his religious beliefs, he is prepared to be welcoming to refugees from the civil war in Syria — “it’s central to who we are as a nation” — but acknowledges that other Republicans are more wary of refugees or immigrants.

“You see a very vigorous and healthy debate in our party,” he says.

Davis says Oregon Republicans have only to look to the north, where the Washington Senate now has a Republican majority, the Washington House is within a couple of seats of GOP control, and there have been three consecutive close elections for governor.

In Oregon, he says, the biggest barrier to candidates hoping to run statewide “is convincing one’s self that you will be the first to succeed after 20 years of failure. That is a significant hurdle to get over.”

The conservative turn of the GOP in recent decades has prompted critics to observe that past Oregon officeholders such as Mark Hatfield and Tom McCall could not win as Republicans today. Davis says he knew neither Hatfield, who was governor for eight years and U.S. senator for 30 years, or McCall, who succeeded Hatfield as governor for eight years.

“But I would never underestimate the power of personality and relationships,” Davis says. “Beyond party, those characteristics are going to cut through what we often see on the surface as caustic and partisan politics.”

Although he was not on the panel, Bob Packwood — a Republican state representative from Portland for six years, and U.S. senator for 27 years — was introduced during the question-and-answer session.

Michelle Cole, formerly a reporter for The Oregonian, and now director of content and research for Gallatin Public Affairs in Portland, moderated the discussion.

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

twitter.com/capitolwong