Oregon Republicans will gather in Clackamas County over the April 22-24 weekend for three days of debate and détente in preparation for the 2022 elections.
The annual Dorchester Conference, held again this year at the Mt. Hood Oregon Resort in Welches, is the traditional gathering of loyal activists, party leaders and conservative national stars in politics and the media.
Pushed to the margins of political power in Oregon in recent years, Republicans are hoping for a turnaround in 2022. No current or former governor is running for the state's top job for the first time since 2002. The newly drawn congressional and legislative districts could yield surprises. President Joe Biden's popularity is slumping, and voters historically have taken out their frustrations during midterms on the party of the president in power.
The Dorchester Conference, to be held Friday through Sunday, started 57 years ago as a gathering of insurgent liberal Republicans but has changed with party politics over the decades to reflect the mostly conservative bent of GOP activists.
Prior to the conference, four candidates for the Republican nomination for governor will take part in a debate in Bend on Thursday that will be streamed online at 7 p.m. Republican candidates running for the 5th Congressional District seat held by U.S. Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Canby, will also participate in a candidate forum on Thursday with the City Club of Central Oregon and the Deschutes County League of Women Voters.
The debates will continue over the weekend at the Dorchester Conference. A larger pool of the more than a dozen Republicans running for governor will debate, while another 5th district face-off will be held between the two candidates drawing the most financial support in the race: Former Happy Valley Mayor Lori Chavez-DeRemer of Happy Valley and Bend businessman Jimmy Crumpacker.
A key difference in the debates: The audiences at the Dorchester Conference will take a straw poll to pick a favorite candidate in both races.
While Republicans see reason for hope in 2022, the current reality is daunting.
Republicans now find their voter registration numbers in third place, behind non-affiliated voters and Democrats.
The party has not won a race for governor since Vic Atiyeh won a second term in 1982. No Republican has won a U.S. Senate seat since Gordon Smith was re-elected in 2002.
Democrats in Oregon have what political analysts call a "triplex" — one party has the offices of governor, attorney general and secretary of state. Democrats also hold majorities in both chambers of the Legislature and the treasurer's office. Both U.S. Senators and four of five U.S. House members are Democrats.
A new challenge for Republicans is the emergence of former state Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, as a non-affiliated candidate for governor. The daughter of a former Republican state lawmaker and mayor of Redmond, she's staking out a middle ground between the two parties that she says have become more extreme.
Whether Johnson will siphon more votes from Republicans or Democrats is up for debate, but in terms of campaign contributions, her largest donations have come from Nike founder Phil Knight and several timber, construction and manufacturing firms that have given mostly to Republicans in the past.
One of the ongoing debates at the Republican conference is whether the party should broaden its appeal to attract more voters or remain ideologically consistent and hope voters will come around to the party's positions. Those tensions surfaced during the 2018 conference, when the late Secretary of State Dennis Richardson, the only GOP statewide officeholder, called for a "big tent," saying his 2016 upset win was driven by voters seeking good government, not partisan affiliation.
"They wanted to elect somebody who would keep his promise to do that which was best for our state," Richardson said. "I said when I was elected you wouldn't be able to tell if there was an 'R' or a 'D' behind my name, and I hope that you can see that I've tried to live up to that."
But at the same event, one of the key speakers was Roger Stone, a political operative for President Donald Trump. He appeared at the conference flanked by a "bodyguard" of members of The Proud Boys, a far-right and at times physically aggressive all-male organization. Stone urged activists to take up tools to get around the institutions he said opposed Trump and conservative Republicans.
"The rise of a vibrant, robust alternative media, the rise of social media, Twitter, Facebook and so on, is what allowed for the election of an outsider candidate who the mainstream media sought to destroy," Stone said.
Richardson died of brain cancer in 2019. Trump pardoned Stone of seven felony charges in 2020. More than three dozen Proud Boys have been indicted on charges connected to the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Along with Oregon politics, the conference will include a presentation on a possible Chinese invasion of Taiwan, while Steve Yates, former National Security Advisor for Vice President Dick Cheney, will talk what went on "behind the scenes" during and after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. U.S. Rep. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario, will talk about Republican plans in Congress, where the party is hoping to take back the majority in November. Panels will discuss natural gas, dam removal and the potential future of nuclear-generated energy.
Much of the draw for those who attend are the smaller receptions, lunches and meetings held to network throughout the weekend. The conference has scheduled a golf tournament for guests, weather permitting.
As soon as the Republicans wrap up, it will be the Democrats' turn to party with their party. The 11th annual Oregon Summit of the Democratic Party of Oregon will be held at Sunriver Resort in Deschutes County from April 29 to May 1. It features Democratic Party versions of the debates, panels, workshops and network-building as the Dorchester Conference before it.
While the Dorchester Conference now attracts a decidedly conservative core of Republicans, with a majority backing former President Donald Trump, the right-tilting party members wouldn't have been welcomed in the early days of the events.
The Dorchester Conference is touted by Oregon Republicans as the oldest annual political conference in the nation. It takes its name from the Dorchester House hotel in Lincoln City, where then-state lawmaker Bob Packwood called a meeting of moderate Republicans in 1965 to talk about repairing the party after the party's 1964 landslide presidential election loss.
The GOP's nominee — U.S. Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona — had taken the stage at the Republican National Convention in San Francisco and declared, "Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice, and let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue." Democrats nominated Lyndon Johnson, their 1960 vice-presidential candidate, who became chief executive after the November 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Johnson won a still record 61.1% of the popular vote. Losses were also heavy among Republicans running for Congress and state offices.
Packwood's invitation to the first Dorchester meeting said "Far right-wingers will be deliberately excluded." By 1968, the conference was drawing over 1,000 people and hosted national figures such as New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller, the leader of the moderate wing of the GOP. The conference's prestige grew after Packwood's 1968 defeat of incumbent U.S. Sen. Wayne Morse. Originally elected as a Republican in 1944 and re-elected in 1950, Morse switched to the Democratic Party and won re-election in 1956 and 1962. Packwood was re-elected four times, but resigned in 1996 over a sex scandal.
With the rise of Ronald Reagan and a shift to the right in the Oregon Republican Party, the Dorchester Conference dropped its liberal tilt. Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Michigan Gov. George Romney (father of current U.S. Senator Mitt Romney of Utah), and U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C. have attended. Along with Stone, Trump-era speakers have included Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson.
The Oregon Capital Bureau is a news partner of the Pamplin Media Group.
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