PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Knute Buehler first dabbled in politics hoping to shake-up the prevailing two-party election system. Now, two decades later, the Bend surgeon has instead embraced one of the big parties he used to fight, becoming the Republican Party's latest hope for breaking Democratic dominance of Oregon state offices.
Buehler is challenging first-term Democrat Kate Brown to be Oregon's secretary of state. His fundraising prowess and disciplined campaign — along with a few missteps by Brown — have helped him turn what's typically a low-profile race into an uncharacteristically energetic battle. Brown is also being challenged from the left by two lesser-known candidates who could impact the outcome of a close race.
Buehler has fashioned himself as a pragmatic moderate with a businessman's sense of management and love of data-driven decision making.
"When I was growing up, Oregon was seen as this kind of shining star in the west for good government and problem solving and people working together, and that's what I want Oregon to be like again," Buehler said.
Since Buehler doesn't do it much himself, Brown is eager to remind voters in this Democrat-dominated state that Buehler is a Republican. She hammers him for murky criticisms of the state's vote-by-mail system and points out that he has "not one moment of experience in elected office."
The secretary of state is in charge of some of the mundane functions of government: Registering corporations, applying election laws, auditing government agencies and maintaining the state archives. But it's also the second-highest elected office in Oregon, and the secretary is first in line to be governor if the chief executive dies or steps down.
Brown moved to Oregon for law school and was appointed to the Legislature in 1991, representing a Portland district. She rose through Democratic leadership ranks, eventually becoming the Senate majority leader before being elected secretary of state in 2008. She says she's cracked down on fraud in the citizen-initiative process and increased the effectiveness of state audits.
Legislation Brown advocated first as a legislator and later as secretary of state requires strict standards for paid workers collecting petition signatures. Critics, including Buehler, say she's made it prohibitively difficult for a grassroots organization without deep pockets to collect enough signatures for an initiative to qualify for the ballot.
"This is the second highest statewide elected official," Brown said. "You have to be prepared to oversee audits, corporations, run elections and step into the governor's office on day one. I have the experience, and I have a record that Oregonians can trust."
Buehler is making his first run for elected office. The Roseburg native is the son of a butcher and homemaker, Buehler was a baseball star at Oregon State University and before studying at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. He graduated from the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore before returning to Oregon to finish his medical training and eventually settling in Bend.
Spurred by a fellow Rhodes Scholar who was working for Ross Perot, Buehler got involved in Perot's longshot 1992 presidential campaign, helping form a political party so Perot could be on the ballot in Oregon as an alternative to Republican George H.W. Bush and Democrat Bill Clinton.
Two years later, Buehler was involved with a ballot initiative to create campaign finance restrictions. It passed overwhelmingly but was found unconstitutional.
He later joined the Republican Party, although he says expanding ballot access for minor parties is a top priority.
"I saw that to really accomplish something in the political system you need to be part of a political party," Buehler said of his decision to join a party after working hard to boost the prospects of minor-party candidates.
Buehler carries the weight of high hopes from others in his adopted party. Republicans haven't won a statewide election since Gordon Smith was re-elected to the U.S. Senate in 2002. He's raised more than $1.1 million for the race, an advantage of $250,000 over the incumbent. Without an opponent in the GOP primary, he's been able to hold onto positions without worry about angering his party's conservative base.
But Brown has hammered him for raising questions about Oregon's vote-by-mail elections system. He says he supports the system.
Also on the ballot will be Pacific Green nominee Seth Woolley and Progressive Party nominee Bob Wolfe.
"This is a very tough race," Brown acknowledged, "and I am confident with the support of Oregonians that I'm going to win."
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.