Is the Republican Party dead in Oregon?

Is the Republican Party dead in Oregon?
Republican Sen. Gordon Smith of Oregon, along with his wife Sharon Smith, give a press conference at their home in Pendleton, Ore., on Thursday, Nov. 6, 2008. (AP Photo/Jackie Johnston)

What does the GOP need to do in Oregon? Share your thoughts.

SALEM, Ore. (AP) — To hear Bob Tiernan tell it, rumors of the Oregon Republican Party's demise have been greatly exaggerated.

"Republicans are down right now, but we're not out," says Tiernan, a former state representative from Lake Oswego who two weeks ago won the chairmanship of the state Republican Party.

His confident demeanor notwithstanding, Tiernan faces a daunting task in trying to revive and restore relevancy to a state party whose political fortunes plummeted in the November elections.

The GOP's standard-bearer, Gordon Smith, was knocked off in his bid for re-election to the U.S. Senate, leaving Oregon with no statewide elected Republican in a partisan office for the first time since the 1870s.

Republicans lost further ground at the statehouse level, with Democrats picking up enough seats to gain "supermajorities" in both the House and Senate, allowing them to enact revenue measures and other major policies without Republican help.

In a public forum just after the election, Republican consultant Dan Lavey gave voice to a view held by others that the Grand Old Party is on the ropes.

"I think the Republican Party in Oregon is dead," Lavey said in his appearance before the City Club of Portland.

Of course, Lavey is a longtime friend and adviser to Smith, and his bleak assessment of the GOP's fortunes no doubt was influenced by Smith's bitter election defeat.

Still, by any measurement, the GOP is losing ground in this state. It's part of a gradual decline that only accelerated in last year's election cycle.

Democrats almost quadrupled their 2004 voter edge over Republicans to some 237,000 in this past election, helping Democrats score victories in suburban areas that traditionally had been viewed as Republican-leaning or swing districts. Smith lost in Washington County, a critically important swing county that had helped him win his first two Senate races.

Republicans also had trouble recruiting experienced, qualified candidates to run for statewide office as well as for competitive congressional seats. In many races for the Oregon House, Republicans didn't even have a contender on the ballot.

Tiernan, as the new state GOP chairman, says Republicans fell victim to a "perfect storm" in 2008 — Obama mania; the economic meltdown; and the deep unpopularity of George Bush among a majority of Oregon voters.

Tiernan also acknowledges that the state GOP, as an organization, fell down on "executing on the basics" as he calls it. The party needs to do a better job of recruiting candidates and helping them win elections with a message stressing the need for fiscal responsibility in government and creating more opportunities for Oregon families, he says.

Tim Phillips, a Portland investment broker and former congressional candidate who's been involved in behind-the-scenes efforts to revive the party, welcomes the emphasis on pocketbook issues over divisive social issues such as abortion and gay rights.

"The social issues of our time will be about having a living wage job that can support a family and being able to afford a college education for your kids," Phillips says.

In the two weeks he's been on the job, Tiernan says he's whittled away at a $300,000 debt facing the party — it's down to $100,000 now and he pledges it will be gone in three months through belt-tightening and aggressive reaching out to donors.

During his years in the Legislature, Tiernan was a gut-fighter who clashed with organized labor and the Democratic political establishment over issues such as public employee pension benefits.

In his new role as state chairman, Tiernan emphasizes his business background — he's the former CEO of the Grocery Outlet chain — to make the point that he's more focused on putting the party infrastructure back on solid ground than becoming a political lightning rod.

All of those efforts might help, but Republicans also are struggling to come up with a basic message to sell themselves to voters these days.

This past week, when the Legislature's budget-writing committee approved borrowing $176 million to pay for job-creating public works projects, the panel's Republican members were split, with five of them voting 'yes' and four voting "no."

The "yes" votes by individual GOP lawmakers came despite objections raised by Republican legislative leaders who say the state will have to take on years of debt to finance routine — and in some cases "pork barrel" — maintenance projects.

Political analyst Jim Moore isn't surprised that some GOP lawmakers voted for the jobs package, given that various opinion polls have shown support for using public works projects to put people back to work during this deepening recession.

"All the Republican leaders are doing is taking potshots at those programs," said Moore, who teaches political science at Pacific University in Forest Grove.

Meanwhile, Lavey, the former aide to Gordon Smith, stands by his earlier prognosis for the Oregon Republican Party.

"I still believe it's dead," Lavey said. "The burden on the new leaders is to try to bring it back to life through hard work, good organization and a smart strategy for winning elections."

Brad Cain has been writing about Oregon politics from his Statehouse office in Salem for 25 years.

(Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.)

What does the GOP need to do in Oregon? Share your thoughts.