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Sen. Bob Packwood says Republicans here once bucked the national party's conservative tilt. Now they've embraced it.

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Bob Packwood was youngest member of the Oregon state legislature in 1962. He served in Salem as a Republican House member until 1969 when he moved to the U.S. Senate after upsetting Democratic incumbent Wayne Morse, serving until 1995.There's a lot of talk in Washington, D.C., these days about the "civil war" within the Republican Party.

The nation's actual party Civil War divided the country between northern liberal Republicans and southern conservative Democrats and profoundly impacted Oregon's political landscape. As more northerners than southerners emigrated here, Oregon tilted Republican. And liberal.

In 1950, for example, the Portland City Council — most of its members being Republican — passed the most wide-reaching civil rights legislation in the country. Even today, it would be regarded as a vanguard. However, opponents gathered enough signatures to put the measure on the ballot.

Voters defeated the civil rights law passed by the council. But it wasn't beaten in the Republican areas of Alameda, Laurelhurst and the West Side. It was defeated in Democratic strongholds like Sellwood and St. Johns.

Fourteen years later, the 1964 Republican presidential primary provided a national dividing line separating moderate from conservative Republicans. By the time of the Oregon GOP primary, it had boiled down to a two-way race between Barry Goldwater, the very conservative U.S. senator from Arizona, and Nelson Rockefeller, the liberal governor from New York.

Goldwater was the eventual Republican nominee for president. But Rockefeller was the choice in Oregon. Goldwater was crushed by Lyndon Johnson nationally by 61% to 38% margin and in Oregon, where Republican Richard Nixon won four years earlier, his margin of defeat was even wider (64% to 36%). That tells you something about what kind of Republicans we were 50 years ago.PMG PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Former U.S. Sen. Bob Packwood chats with Oregon Gov. Kate Brown at a January 2019 event.

After the 1964 Goldwater wipeout, Republicans in Oregon realized the dangers of the party turning right. So, in 1965, The Dorchester Conference was founded for the very purpose of keeping the Republican Party moderate. By 1968, the conference had grown to 700 people, and it spoke for the Republican Party in the state.

Moderate party members were called Dorchester Republicans. And under their leadership, the Republican Party was immensely successful. Mark Hatfield, Tom McCall, Howell Appling, Dave Frohnmayer, Lee Johnson, Norma Paulus, Bill Rutherford and Tony Meeker all won statewide office without courting the far-right. The list could go on, and I would count myself as one of that crew.

Another excellent example of how the national party was out of step with Oregon is abortion rights. Between 1978 and 2006, there have been six ballot measures to restrict abortion rights. All six failed.

But the Republican Party continues to oppose a women's right to choose. Talk about supporting a losing position. Put those same ballot issues on the ballot again today, and the margin of defeat of the anti-choice forces would be even more significant. Does anyone think Oregon has gotten more conservative in the last 25 years?

Over the past three decades the party — in Oregon and the nation — tilted further right. Grass roots activists in Oregon, in closed primaries, nominated right wing candidates with little hope of winning statewide election. The success of the Republican Party in statewide races in Oregon has been almost nil. And unless the party regains its moderate stances, that losing record will continue.

Wake up, Oregon!


Bob Packwood was born in Portland and became the youngest member of the Oregon state legislature in 1962. He served in Salem as a Republican House member until 1969 when he moved to the U.S. Senate after upsetting Democratic incumbent Wayne Morse, serving until 1995.


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