EUGENE, Ore. (AP) — Many Republican candidates are lining up for photo ops and rallies with President Donald Trump, but the GOP candidate for Oregon governor prefers divisive national figures stay away.
State Rep. Knute Buehler, who’s from the outsdoorsy, micro-brew mecca of Bend, calls himself a moderate. He’s running what from the outside could look like a long-shot race against the incumbent, Democrat Kate Brown. The last Republican governor left office 31 years ago.
But Buehler believes that enough voters are upset with Oregon’s dismal record on education — its among the last in the nation in graduation rates — with a burgeoning public employee pension debt, and with neglect of thousands of foster children, that it will carry him on Nov. 6. And public polling shows the Brown-Buehler contest is close.
“I reject narrow partisan labels, I think they just divide us and don’t define many of us. I take it issue by issue,” Buehler said Monday after touring a camp for homeless military veterans, in an industrial section of the university town of Eugene.
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The Veterans Safe Spot, where 15 huts are lined up in military formation with a small kitchen at the end, goes to the heart of one of Buehler’s campaign platforms: homelessness.
The visit by Buehler, who has a goatee and wore a blue blazer over a dress shirt with no tie, was low-key.
No audience was present save for one reporter as Buehler looked at the shelters — called Conestoga huts and looking like miniature covered wagons minus the wheels — and spoke with two managers and a resident veteran. After the tour, Buehler sat down at one of the picnic tables for an interview, and discussed what he’ll do if he wins.
“My first day in office, in the morning, I’ll name a chief homelessness solution officer because we have a humanitarian crisis right now in Oregon that needs to be dealt with,” Buehler told The Associated Press. “There’s a lot of good projects, like we see that we’re sitting in the middle of right now. There’s no leadership from the governor aligning these kinds of activities and, importantly, concentrating the funding and resources to the ones that are doing it right.”
Brown’s campaign counters that the governor recently pushed the Legislature for $5 million for additional shelters and proposed a $370 million strategy that prioritizes ending homelessness of children, veterans and the chronically homeless.
Buehler, whose parents didn’t finish high school, is a strong believer in education. The son of a butcher and a homemaker in Roseburg, Buehler graduated from Oregon State University, went to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar and graduated from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
“Education was my elevator to success,” the 54-year-old Buehler said. “Too many kids in Oregon don’t have that kind of opportunity right now.”
If elected, he would spend the afternoon of his first day in office reorganizing the state education department.
“The department hasn’t delivered the results we need for Oregon kids. Oregon is in the bottom five in the nation for k-12 schools. When you see those results, that’s crying out for leadership and a change of leadership at that department.”
Asked if he’d welcome Trump’s help in his campaign, Buehler said: “I don’t want to get caught up in divisive national issues.” On whether he approves of Trump, Buehler said he doesn’t believe in political divisiveness.
He disagrees with Trump’s immigration and environmental policies, including quitting the Paris climate accords but agrees with the president’s renegotiating international trade agreements and his stance that NATO has taken advantage of the United States. Buehler also agrees with Trump’s attempts to cut “the regulatory burden that was placed on the country.”
Buehler described himself as fiscally conservative, believing in small but effective government that can provide opportunities to move people from dependence to independence, but not become a long-term solution.
Asked why he’s optimistic after other Republican candidates failed to win the governorship, Buehler noted that he’s won his House seat twice in a district where only a quarter of voters are registered Republicans. Registered Democrats account for 35 percent with the remainder unaffiliated or Independent Party members.
“I know how to get a group of bipartisan supporters to win,” Buehler said. He sees Vermont, Massachusetts and Maryland, which all have moderate Republican governors and Democrat-controlled statehouses, as a template for Oregon.
“They provide that balance in those states, that kind of moderation,” he said of the governors.
Brown’s re-election campaign insists Buehler is not so moderate, noting that while he says he’s pro-choice, he voted against two bills aimed at strengthening abortion access.
Buehler, who is an orthopedic surgeon, also got some flak for announcing that he supports parents’ rights to opt out of vaccination for non-medical reasons. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says vaccination requirements are important for lowering rates of vaccine-preventable diseases.
Joseph Lowndes, associate professor of political science at the University of Oregon, said Buehler’s stance on vaccinations seems aimed at conservative Republicans.
“He has to bridge the Portland moderate Republicans, centrist and soft-right Democrats, and satisfy the much more conservative Republican base in eastern and southern Oregon,” Lowndes said in a telephone interview. “It’s a difficult balancing act for him to pull off.”
Oregon’s moderate Republican voting bloc scattered when the party moved more toward the right with hard anti-tax, anti-abortion politics and conservative features several decades ago.
“Liberal Republicans kind of lost a home,” Lowndes said. Some drifted, registering as Democrats, becoming Independents or remaining registered Republicans but voting Democrat in general elections.
“Buehler hopes to revive that moderate Republican stance, revive that voting bloc,” Lowndes said. “He’s done surprisingly well at making it a pretty tight race. It shows the state is not as liberal as people often think it is.”
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