As swank candidate fundraisers go, the gathering of possible Knute Buehler supporters on Sept. 12 could hardly have been more cliché.
There was the setting: a hillside mansion with a dramatic view of Portland’s twinkling cityscape. There were the attendees: 30 or so well-heeled voters sipping wine and waiting to hear Buehler’s pitch for why he should be Oregon’s first Republican governor in three decades.
But then there was the host: Megan Murphy, a non-affiliated voter who says she always votes Democrat.
Murphy voted for Gov. Kate Brown in 2016 and cannot recall ever voting Republican. Yet there she was, inviting people — including other Democrats — into her home to hear from Brown’s Republican opponent.
“Despite the best economy we’re going to see in our lifetime … Portland has gone so backwards, and the state has gotten so many challenges and so few solutions,” Murphy said as she and her guests waited for Buehler to arrive. “What’s gelling here is I haven’t had another Republican candidate that’s sort of … more in the middle.”
That’s a notion the 54-year-old Buehler is counting on to boost him over the high hurdle faced by Republican candidates for statewide office in Oregon. And if most recent polls about the race hold true, it’s made this race surprisingly competitive.
In a reliably blue state, in the throes of an election year where pundits are predicting a “blue wave,” it’s possible Buehler has a shot at the governor’s office. If he does convince Oregonians he’s the person for the job, Buehler would be the first Republican to hold the seat since 1987.
A big part of Buehler’s strategy is his ability to reach people like Murphy. As the Nov. 6 election approaches, the orthopedic surgeon and state representative from Bend seems to be doing all he can to not sound like a Republican.
The approach is evident in omnipresent ads — touting Buehler’s pro-choice stance, his belief in climate change, his support of same-sex marriage — that frequently gloss over his credentials as a fiscal conservative. And it’s a hallmark of the “independent-minded” descriptor he uses during stump speeches.
As it happens, that’s nothing new for Buehler. The Bend House district he’s represented since 2015 leans Democratic in registration, yet has voted him into office twice.
“We have experience in bringing people together in bipartisan fashion,” Buehler recently said in an interview on KATU. “For me to get elected in Bend, I have to form a robust coalition of not only Republicans, but independents and moderate Democrats, and that’s what I see happening right now. It’s very encouraging to me.”
A Vision To 'Fix' Oregon
At the meet-and-greet event high above downtown Portland, Buehler works the room for a few minutes before launching into his standard sales pitch.
First, he goes into his background, explaining how he was raised in Roseburg by two parents — his father a U.S. Navy veteran and butcher, his mother a homemaker — who never graduated high school. Then he runs through his impressive academic pedigree: an undergrad degree at Oregon State University, medical school at Johns Hopkins and a Rhodes Scholarship at the University of Oxford, where he studied economics and politics.
In other settings, the story often includes little lessons Buehler picked up along the way. How, for instance, he became interested in medicine when his father suffered a debilitating stroke. Or how as a middling pitcher on the OSU baseball team he learned to be a role player in a larger group. Or how he became deeply interested in poverty and inequality while treating patients in inner-city Baltimore during medical school.
But on this night, Buehler moves briskly through the background — making sure to mention his wife, Patty, and two children — and onto his platform.
“I’m really running to be your next governor for a very, very simple reason,” he tells the group. “To fix the big problems in Oregon that have been avoided, ignored and, quite frankly, made a lot worse by Gov. Brown over the last four years.”
The spiel is fairly simple. Buehler wants to fix Oregon’s schools, which lag behind the nation in several key indices and suffer from major funding challenges. To right the ship, he promises to find money by pushing through reforms to the state’s hugely expensive public employee pension system, known as PERS.
“Too much of the revenue is not going to the classroom, not going to kids, but going to retirement,” Buehler says. “As governor, I will not sign a single new spending bill until I have a PERS reform bill on my desk.”
(One detail Buehler doesn’t address: that the bill he envisions is unlikely to come from a Legislative Assembly dominated by Democrats who take issue with that vision.)
Another key point on Buehler’s list of promises: He says he’ll address the state’s homelessness crisis by funding thousands of new shelter beds, incentivizing affordable housing development, and pushing legislation that would free up cities to regulate people sitting or lying on the sidewalk.
And Buehler pledges, as a native son of Roseburg, to work to heal the urban/rural divide that has long split Oregonians, and to champion the needs of more remote parts of the state.
The pro-choice and anti-climate change positions Buehler loves to tout on TV don’t feature much in the speech. Still, he doesn’t shy from them when asked about what’s been a key point of contention with Brown: abortion.
“I’m pro-choice,” he tells his audience. “I’ve always been pro-choice. I ran as a pro-choice candidate in 2014, 2016 and in the Republican gubernatorial primary. If there’s any time not to be running pro-choice, it would be in a Republican primary these days.”
What Defines A Republican, Exactly?
He’s got a point. If Buehler’s moderate stances are a strength in Oregon, they also could present a challenge.
It’s possible his position on issues like abortion could alienate Republicans. That’s a potential problem: Support from centrist Democrats and unaffiliated voters is no use to Buehler if he doesn’t have strong support from his own party.
“There’s rumbling amongst the base, and I have had to do a lot of talking to them,” says state Rep. Bill Post, R-Keizer, one of the more conservative members of the state House of Representatives.
Post supported one of Buehler’s opponents in the May primary but now says Buehler is his candidate. And he’s working to convince his fellow conservatives that having a Republican in the governor’s office should be the main goal — even if they distrust aspects of Buehler’s record.
“A lot of people had all kinds of problems with the presidential race last year,” Post says, referencing the 2016 election of President Donald Trump. “That guy didn’t check everyone’s boxes. I kept saying, ‘Supreme Court, Supreme Court, Supreme Court.’”
This year, Post has been working to convince people that the slate of executive appointees Buehler could install as governor — to everything from the Oregon Supreme Court to the State Plumbing Board — is reason enough to support him.
“I think are falling in line,” says Kevin Hoar, of the Oregon Republican Party. “People in Oregon understand that there’s an Oregon way and that Knute Buehler has defined himself as his own type of candidate.”
But here’s the thing. You might not know it from his campaign, but in a lot of ways, Buehler is a traditional Republican — particularly when it comes to fiscal matters.
Sure, he believes in climate change. But he also voted with his party against standards for cleaner fuels in Oregon and has said he opposes a structure for taxing carbon emissions that Democrats are keen to float in next year’s legislative session.
Buehler has voted for new gun control measures — like a bill earlier this year that closed a loophole for abusive boyfriends — but against others. He’s opposed hikes to the minimum wage and bills designed to help shield renters from the state’s housing affordability crisis. And he voted against automatic voter registration for Oregon drivers and a law that seeks to help people with criminal records find employment.
In one of the most heated debates Oregon will have this fall —whether to repeal the state’s 31-year-old “sanctuary” law — Buehler has taken conflicting stances. He’s been clear he’ll vote to kill the law, which prohibits local law enforcement from enforcing federal immigration laws. But Buehler also told OPB he agrees with the law’s central tenet: That local officers shouldn’t be immigration enforcers.
The Buehler vote that’s gotten by far the most scrutiny this election season was his decision to oppose a 2017 bill that expanded abortion coverage to more low-income women in Oregon and required private insurers in the state to cover abortions.
The so-called Reproductive Health Equity Act is considered a signature piece of legislation for Brown — particularly in a political climate that has many questioning the future of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision — and the governor and her allies have held up the bill as proof Buehler is not pro-choice, as he says. In doing so they frequently point to a statement Buehler made earlier this year to conservative radio host Lars Larson.
“I have a record in the Legislature of voting against Gov. Brown’s efforts to expand access to abortion,” Buehler said in that exchange. “I think we have other priorities where spending should go.”
That’s in line with reasons Buehler gave last year for opposing the bill, but Democrats contend it undercuts his claims.
“Knute Buehler says one thing to court pro-choice voters, but he has an altogether different narrative when he is trying to win over other voters,” a recent press release from the Democratic Party of Oregon said.
Television ads supporting Brown have been more pointed, suggesting access to abortion in Oregon could be curtailed under Buehler.
A Political Mountain Climb
Despite the attacks, Buehler appears to be mounting the strongest Republican bid for governor since former Portland Trail Blazer Chris Dudley lost to Democrat John Kitzhaber by less than two percentage points in 2010.
There hasn’t been widespread polling in the race, but most polls that do exist — many commissioned or conducted by conservative-leaning groups — suggest it’s tight.
Democrats have downplayed the results, but they’ve gotten attention. National political observers at the Cook Political Report and the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics are now saying the race “leans Democrat” where they had once called it a “likely” win for Brown. And Real Clear Politics, a website that aggregates and analyzes polling data, now believes the race is a toss-up.
Buehler’s apparent momentum has unleashed a torrent of cash into the governor’s race, which already has become the most expensive in Oregon history.
The national Republican Governors Association has spent more than $1 million supporting Buehler, saying it believes Oregon could be a prime pick up this year. Locally, Nike co-founder Phil Knight kicked in $1.5 million to Buehler’s war chest, by far the most money the billionaire has given to an Oregon candidate.
In response, other national organizations have swept in to defend Brown. Both the Democratic Governors Association and the political action committee Emily’s List have made large contributions. Finance records suggest Brown still has millions more on hand to spread her message than Buehler.
Collectively, the candidates had raised roughly $18 million, according to reporting as of Sept. 28, more than five weeks before the election.
But as heartening as this might sound for Republicans, this is still Oregon, where history shows the odds aren’t in Buehler’s favor.
As Post, the representative from Keizer concedes: “That hill is massive.”
A Change In Ideology For Oregon
After giving his stump speech at the recent meet-and-greet — making certain to ask for campaign contributions — Buehler takes questions from the audience.
Topics touch on abortion, and pensions and how he’ll deal with striking unions if he tries to change those pensions. When the discussion turns to gun control, a woman named Annie Ward speaks up for the first time.
“I’m confused,” she says. “Why even have assault weapons?”
It’s a topic that came up earlier this year, when a clergy-based group unsuccessfully attempted to push a ballot measure that would ban sales of certain military-style weapons. Buehler said he opposed that measure, but in the face of Ward’s question, he’s more measured.
“There’s so many on the streets already, and most of the actual mass shootings are actually done with handguns,” he says.
The response leaves Ward, who typically votes Democrat, wanting more.
“I wasn’t satisfied,” she says after the event. “I thought he lost a point with me on the guns, and that’s a big problem.”
It’s a snapshot of the big question Buehler faces: Oregonians might not be thrilled with Kate Brown, but are they ready, after three decades, for a Republican?
Correction: This story has been changed to accurately reflect Megan Murphy's voter affiliation in Oregon. OPB regrets the error.