Front-runners emerge in packed GOP race for Oregon governor

Knute Buehler, Greg Wooldridge and Sam Carpenter. (KATU Photos)

SALEM, Ore. (AP) — Front-runners have emerged in the packed race to be the Republican candidate for Oregon governor, with the standouts differing sharply on issues like climate change, gun control and the state's sanctuary status for immigrants.

State Rep. Knute Buehler, who leads in name recognition, retired Navy pilot Greg Wooldridge, and businessman Sam Carpenter are the leading GOP contenders. The winner of the May 15 primary will face the likely Democratic nominee, Gov. Kate Brown, in November.

But in the general election, any Republican candidate will have to overcome a built-in disadvantage: Their party trails Democrats by more than 9 percentage points in voter registrations. With neither party holding more than half the state's registered voters, capturing a significant slice of the 31 percent declared as non-affiliated will be the key to victory in November.

While Oregon voters have historically rewarded moderates, with center-right candidates generally outperforming firebrands, a broad feeling of frustration looms over the race, said Priscilla Southwell, a political science professor at the University of Oregon.

Combined with potentially above-average turnout driven by a heightened focus on politics at the national level, an outsider candidate could have a better chance than in previous primaries, Southwell said.

One voter, a registered Republican in Salem, described similar feelings.

"On the Democratic side, things are too liberal for my taste," said Paul Webb, 58. "But on the other side, there are plenty of things I don't want to be associated with," Webb said, referring to President Donald Trump.

While Buehler's name sounded familiar, Webb said he doesn't know any of the candidates' positions, and that he planned to decide after reading the voters pamphlet.

"I'm not happy with either party," Webb said, adding that the candidates' stance on abortion — an issue that's been prominent in the primary — will likely contribute to his choice.

Buehler supports legal abortion. Although in 2017, he voted against a bill requiring health plans to cover contraceptives and abortion.

Wooldridge, who lives in Portland, hopes his opposition to abortion will draw conservatives away from Buehler.

"They're going to come my way," Wooldridge said. "It'll be close, I'll be the first to admit."

Buehler, who ran for secretary of state in 2012, is the most explicitly centrist of the three front-runners.

"I think both the left and the right are too extreme," said Buehler, an orthopedic surgeon from Bend.

Buehler leads the field broadly in fundraising, but lost one influential straw poll to Wooldridge.

When asked about concerns raised by some fellow Republicans about his absence at several debates and other party events, Buehler pointed to scheduling conflicts.

"It's not like I'm sitting at home watching movies," Buehler said.

Wooldridge, a more conservative latecomer supported by anti-abortion groups, drew attention when he won a prominent straw poll at the Republican Dorchester gathering. He later lost to Buehler in the Washington County straw poll by only a single vote.

Carpenter, who has said he was inspired to run for office in part by Trump, came in third at both events.

A total of 10 Republicans have registered in the race, although only six appear in the primary voters' pamphlet. That's the largest GOP primary field in more than 50 years.

In fundraising, both Buehler and Wooldridge have notably benefited from large single donations. Of the roughly $3.3 million Buehler has raised since 2017, $500,000 came in a single donation from Nike co-founder Phil Knight.

Nearly half of the roughly $234,000 raised by Wooldridge came from one out-of-state corporate donor, a Delaware partnership whose ownership was not immediately clear from corporate filings. The company, Daybreak Investments, is also registered in California; It donated $100,000 to Wooldridge in March.

The front-runners do have similarities, including a shared approach to the crisis surrounding Oregon's Public Employees Retirement System, known as PERS, which is running a $25.3 billion deficit. At the local level, pension obligations are forcing some cities to cut back on basic services like road maintenance.

The three advocate shifting to a system where employees pay into a retirement account like a 401(k), with some degree of matching contribution from the state.

But fissures exist, including with spending. While all three say they are generally skeptical of major new spending, Buehler said he is open to increased taxes on electronic and regular cigarettes to pay for budget items like health care.

Wooldridge, by comparison, said he would not accept increased government spending, despite naming infrastructure and education improvements as top priorities.

The three are also far apart on climate change, sanctuary status for the state, and gun regulations.

On climate change, Buehler called a Democratic plan to sell carbon credits "too complex." However, he said that he'd be open to a simpler approach like a carbon tax, so long as it was offset by tax cuts elsewhere.

Wooldridge and Carpenter both say they do not believe humans are the main cause of climate change.

Carpenter, the most conservative, said in an interview that he considers himself "a climate change denier." Wooldridge said in an email that approving a new natural gas terminal at Coos Bay, known as the Jordan Cove project, would protect the environment by offering an alternative to dirtier fuels.

Carpenter and Wooldridge say they are against the state's sanctuary status for immigrants. Buehler says he sees the utility of limited sanctuary rules which exclude violent criminals but block minor infractions and traffic offenses from being flagged to federal immigration authorities.

The biggest gap between the three candidates is on gun legislation, though they all oppose initiatives adding safe storage requirements for firearms and banning assault weapons.

Buehler said he supports extended waiting periods to purchase handguns and is open to the idea of raising the purchasing age for rifles. He previously voted for Democrat-sponsored legislation to block people with restraining orders or domestic violence convictions from purchasing guns.

Wooldridge and Carpenter have taken more conservative positions. Both said they oppose raising the purchasing age for rifles, added storage requirements, and an assault weapons ban.

Carpenter said he'd support repealing the ban on gun purchases by people with stalking convictions, domestic violence convictions, or restraining orders.

Whether a hard-line approach to polarizing issues will appeal to Republican voters is an open question, but Southwell warned that a more conservative candidate would likely have a harder time winning over a broader audience in November.

Southwell said while movements like the tea party have capitalized on a sense of frustration among some Republicans, the broader electorate has favored more centrist candidates, a sentiment that could cost the party in the general election if a hard-liner wins the primary.

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