SALEM, Ore. — While they've been mostly shut out of statewide office for decades, there are still 730,000 registered Republicans in the state of Oregon, according to state records. With a wide-open race for governor, and significant frustration among voters with the way things are going now under Democratic leadership, could this be their year?
It could be — if the party can get its act together.
Earlier this month, Republican state Sen. Dallas Heard stepped down from his role as chair of the Oregon Republican Party. Heard will keep his seat in the Senate, but he said he'll no longer be in charge of the party. Vice-chair Herman Baertschiger will lead the party for now.
In a letter that was shared on social media, Heard cited "wickedness within our party," said "communist psychological warfare tactics" were being used to "destroy anyone of true character" and said the "endless slander, gossip, conspiracies, sabotage, lies, hatred, pointless criticism, blocking of ideas, and mutiny" brought against his administration by members of his own party had "broken his spirit."
Heard is among the most extreme in his party; he supported the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and the riot at the Oregon State Capitol weeks earlier, and has been a vocal opponent of masks, vaccine mandates and all other COVID restrictions, even forming a group called "Citizens Against Tyranny." Heard has also made it a practice to vote against bills, even those he agreed with, to protest the Capitol being closed to the public during the pandemic.
Knute Buehler, a de facto leader of the party in Oregon, left the Republican Party last year. Buehler, a moderate Republican who lost to Gov. Kate Brown in 2018, left after the state GOP declared the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol a "false flag."
When Heard took over after Bill Currier, it signaled the party was comfortable moving further to the right. In 2022, that might no longer be true, said veteran Republican strategist Rebecca Tweed.
"It seemed like, for a while, the louder and more extreme and the higher your litmus test was, the more Republican you were," Tweed said. "The electorate is not really responding well to that."
Tweed has run more than 80 campaigns in Oregon. She says the party is turning its focus from the past to the future, and becoming more moderate.
"If you look at Senator Heard, who became the chair, part of that slate of Republicans that took over the GOP were supposed to bring change. They were supposed to bring a different attitude. And instead, there was a year where Republicans didn't have a lot of energy. And that anger that Senator Heard was bringing, folks in the party didn't want that. They want to move forward."
Seventeen Republicans have officially entered the race for Oregon governor. The primary election is May 17.