Times are dark for the Oregon Republican Party, which does not occupy a single statewide office and had a candidate for only one of three partisan statewide offices on the May primary ballot.
But ever-optimistic Oregon Republican Chairman Allen Alley is convinced that daylight is just around the corner. He expects Republican candidate Mitt Romney to be competitive in Oregon, a state that hasn't voted Republican in a presidential race since Ronald Reagan told voters it was "Morning in America."
Perhaps it really is darkest just before dawn and the Oregon Republican Party is about to wake up. But Alley has a lot of work to do to make that happen -- not the least of which is replenishing a GOP candidate pool as shallow as a West Texas creek in August.
We offer this assessment despite our belief that the party has made significant strides since Alley became chairman in early 2011. Under his leadership, the party has decreased infighting and focused its message on jobs and the economy. He has made progress toward modernizing the party's operations by updating technology and databases and employing more sophisticated methods to reach voters. And his relentless can-do attitude is essential for someone trying to rebuild a team with a losing record.
But, at best, to this point Alley has succeeded only in improving the Republican storefront. An attractive-looking store serves little purpose if there are few products inside.
Alley cites Knute Buehler, the Republican nominee for secretary of state, as the type of candidate he would like to develop in the Oregon Republican Party. Buehler has similarities toChris Dudley, the former Trail Blazer and Yale graduate who was the Republican nominee for governor in 2010, narrowly losing to Gov. John Kitzhaber. Buehler also is a former athlete (Oregon State baseball) with strong academic credentials (Rhodes Scholar and Johns Hopkins M.D.) and no previous political experience.
Outsider candidates play well in the Oregon Republican Party. But so far the best they have managed in statewide elections is to come close. Alley, a former high-tech executive, ran a competitive race for state treasurer in 2008 before losing the 2010 GOP gubernatorial primary to Dudley.
But there simply aren't enough Knute Buehlers and Chris Dudleys to consistently field a full slate of candidates. In addition, outsiders always are vulnerable to claims that they lack the experience and skills necessary to govern, and they are more likely to make campaign gaffes or strategic mistakes. Alley acknowledges, for example, that Dudley paid too little attention to Multnomah County, always the biggest roadblock for Oregon Republicans.
We would like to see the party invest more time in developing strong legislative candidates who can become statewide candidates. In the Democratic Party, the Emerge Oregon program to identify and train women candidates has been so successful that some primary races this year featured two highly qualified women. In fact, in terms of background, the losing candidate in the House District 36 Democratic primary, emergency room physician Sharon Meieran, fits the description of the types of candidates Alley would like Republicans to field for statewide office.
The decision by Sen. Jason Atkinson, R-Central Point, not to seek re-election removed one potential statewide candidate from the Republican pool. Alley points to the nine Republican House members from districts with Democratic edges as evidence that the party still has some strong candidates.
Indeed those legislators are a good place to start in looking for future statewide candidates. Among them are two first-term Washington County legislators with professional backgrounds, attorney Shawn Lindsay and accountant Katie Eyre, who have the potential to appeal to voters in the Portland area as well as in Republican strongholds.
Rebuilding the Oregon Republican Party is not an impossible task. States more liberal than Oregon have produced strong GOP candidates. In Washington, Secretary of State Sam Reed and Attorney General Rob McKenna are Republicans. Romney was governor of Massachusetts.
A stronger field of Republicans in general elections would benefit the entire state. The exchange of ideas that comes from competition between two viable candidates could help generate compromise and solutions to the state's ongoing budget issues and other long-term problems.
If that happened, maybe the entire state could wake up.