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Politics & Government

Oregon GOP Taps Southern Oregon Senators As New Leadership

Dallas Heard OPB.jpg
Kaylee Domzalski / OPB
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Sen. Dallas Heard, R-Myrtle Creek, was elected chair of the Oregon Republican Party on Saturday. Heard defeated three-term party chair Bill Currier.

State Sen. Dallas Heard , R-Myrtle Creek, is one of three current or former Republican state senators from Southern Oregon who swept into party leadership after a vote Saturday. Former Senate Minority Leader Herman Baertschiger Jr., now a Josephine County commissioner, won a contested race for vice chair. And state Sen. Dennis Linthicum, R-Klamath Falls, will serve as party treasurer.

A conservative state senator from Myrtle Creek is the new chair of the Oregon Republican Party, following an event Saturday in which Republicans overhauled their top party leadership.

According to multiple Republican sources, state Sen. Dallas Heard handily won the job, beating three-term chair and Adair Village Mayor Bill Currier.

Heard, 35, is just one in a slate of current and former Republican senators from Southern Oregon who now have a central role in steering the party’s course. Former Senate Minority Leader Herman Baertschiger Jr., now a Josephine County commissioner, won a contested race for vice chair. And state Sen. Dennis Linthicum, R-Klamath Falls, will serve as party treasurer.

A third sitting state senator, Chuck Thomsen of Hood River, was unsuccessful in his bid to serve as the party’s secretary. He was defeated by incumbent secretary Becky Mitts, who also serves as chief of staff to state Rep. Mike Nearman, a Republican from Polk County.

“It’s just kind of taking the party in a little different direction, a different type of leadership,” Baerstchiger said Sunday. “No criticism really of the prior leadership. … It wasn’t like there was some kind of coup.”

Inquiries to Heard, Thomsen and a party spokesman were not answered Sunday morning.

The in-person election of top party officials was held Saturday at a VFW hall in Salem. Photos sent to OPB from a person who reported attending the event showed a hall packed with people in close quarters, none of them wearing face masks.

The leadership swap comes at a time the Oregon GOP has gained national attention for passing a resolution claiming the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol was a “false flag” operation by leftist forces — a conspiracy theory that has been debunked in the weeks since the incident.

The statement was denounced by all 23 Republicans in the state House of Representatives. Two Republican senators representing swing districts, Thomsen and Bend-based Sen. Tim Knopp, also took exception to the statement. Knute Buehler, 2018 Republican nominee for governor, changed his party registration to nonaffiliated following the incident.

Baertschiger was less critical.

“I didn’t really see an upside to that, even though there’s a lot of questions about the Jan. 6 Capitol incident,” he said. “It’s going to take a while for the facts to get out. They’re starting to come out. I think it’s gonna be a mixed bag.”

The state GOP has also been criticized in recent years for expending resources running two unsuccessful recall campaigns against Gov. Kate Brown, while at the same time failing to recruit competitive candidates for some statewide offices. Democrats currently control every executive office in the state and hold supermajorities in the House and Senate, theoretically allowing them to pass any bill without Republican support.

It was unclear Sunday how Heard and others might seek to alter that trajectory. Heard in recent months has repeatedly garnered attention for his strident stance against state rules requiring masks and shuttering businesses to stem the spread of COVID-19.

When the Legislature met in special session on Dec. 21, Heard tore off his face mask in protest on the Senate floor, and he accused Democratic legislators and the governor of a “campaign against the people and the children of God.”

On Jan. 6, the same day as the attack on the U.S. Capitol, Heard addressed supporters of then-President Trump at an “Occupy the Capitol” rally in Salem.

“I’m just kind of at a loss for words as I look at this Capitol building that is yours, the people’s, and is currently being occupied by a group of elitists,” Heard told the crowd. “Sadly I’m not sure that it’s all Democrats that are the elitists, frankly. I am a Republican, but I’m an American first and there are some Republicans that need to go.”

Later Heard told the cheering crowd: “Don’t let any of these punks from that stone temple over there ever tell you they are better than any of you. Trust me. I work with these fools. None of them are half as good as any of you.”

Heard and Baertschiger have also been tied to a group called “Citizens Against Tyranny.” The group has published the names of people who reported COVID-19 safety violations to the state’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The Roseburg News-Review reported that the group labeled two women who’d reported violations as “filthy traitors” on its website. The names were removed after the paper began asking questions.

Baertschiger said Sunday he expected the new party leadership to improve its messaging and organization. He said that discussions for mounting a leadership challenge in the party began when he was still in the Senate.

“I think there’s a lot of tremendous people that want to get involved with the Republican Party,” he said. “We’ve seen that with the registration and we’ve seen it with the bipartisan support from both recalls. If there was ever a time to organize a little better than we have in the past, it’s probably now.”

It’s not unheard of for sitting state lawmakers to lead the state party. More often, though, elected legislators and party leadership remain distinct from one another and former lawmakers like Baertschiger pursue the chairship. Baertschiger said Sunday that Heard had a “burning desire” for the party’s top spot.

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting