3 vie to lead Oregon Republicans back to power

Of the Associated Press

SALEM — It's a tough time to be a Republican in Oregon.

Relegated to the margins of power, the Oregon Republican Party will get a new leader next weekend to take a fresh stab at putting the party on a path back to relevance.

The GOP hasn't won a statewide race in a decade, controls just one of five congressional seats and is now in the minority in the House and Senate. The party didn't recruit candidates willing to run for treasurer or attorney general last year.

Five candidates are running for chairman of the state GOP, and attention has focused largely on three of them: A former two-time congressional candidate from southern Oregon, a two-time legislative candidate from Portland and the Clackamas County GOP chairman.

They all agree that something has to change, that Republicans have to do a better job communicating their ideas to the voters. But their ideas for how to do that are different.

“You can't win with just Republican votes,” said John Lee, chairman of the Clackamas County Republican Central Committee who is seeking the statewide chairman's job. “The people are with us on the issues. Now we have to get them to be with us when there's an ‘R’ behind the name.”

Lee is running on the strength of the party's success in Clackamas County, which has been a rare bright spot for conservative ideas at the ballot box. Republicans now have a majority of seats on the county commission, and voters have sided with the conservative position in several local ballot measures regarding light rail and a new tax to pay for a bridge replacement.

The party needs to do a much better job defining Republicans on their own terms, rather than the Democrats’, he said. But it also needs to get much better at the nuts-and-bolts of campaigning. County operations need good training and coordination so they're being effective and not duplicating their efforts, he said. And the vast array of organizations that believe in Republican values — the party, legislators and conservative political groups — need to coordinate their message and speak from the same page.

He's said he'd try to raise enough money to be paid a salary so he could focus on the GOP effort full-time — a position his rivals have criticized.

Just under a third of Oregon's 2.2 million registered voters are Republicans, and they're outnumbered by Democrats by 190,000.

Making up for that disparity will require an army of volunteers, said Suzanne Gallagher, a former legislative candidate now running for GOP leader. The state GOP needs to find creative ways to reach new volunteers and motivate them to reach out to friends and neighbors.

She says the party needs to rally around an economic question: “Who's money is it?”

Gallagher ran for the state House in 2004 and Senate in 2012 from districts that heavily favored Democrats.

“Did I win the race? No. But I did win a lot of people to our way of thinking,” Gallagher said. “That's what we have to do as an organization. We have to get more bodies. I'm a body hunter, that's who I am.”

The next chairman will be selected Feb. 2 by 118 members of the state GOP Central Committee when they meet in Salem.

The winner will serve a two-year term through the 2014 election, which will be headlined by races for governor and U.S. Senate. Republicans tend to do better in Oregon in elections that don't feature a presidential contest and the higher voter turnout that comes with it.

Republicans have a more-difficult message to communicate than Democrats because the GOP asks voters to take a long-term view, said Art Robinson, who has twice unsuccessfully challenged U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio and is now running for GOP chairman.

“The whole country has drifted toward an era of big government and overspending, and difficulties that I think come about by not limiting our government to the jobs that it really does well,” Robinson said. “The people of Oregon have been a part of that.”

The Republican soul-searching isn't limited to Oregon after President Barack Obama's re-election victory in November and a failed effort to retake control of the U.S. Senate.

Still, the GOP has had some especially frustrating defeats here. In 2010, when an anti-incumbent wave propelled Republican candidates into office, it stopped short of Oregon, where Democrats retained all four U.S. House seats they controlled and Republican Chris Dudley was narrowly defeated for governor. The GOP picked up enough seats to tie Democrats in the state House, only to lose four of them in 2012.

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