SALEM — Knute Buehler’s absence at county-level gubernatorial candidates forums and debates for the GOP nomination for governor has alienated some of the most politically active members his party, some Republicans say.
The Bend orthopedic surgeon and state representative must edge out nine opponents in the May 15 primary to win the nomination. The winner will challenge Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat.
Yet he has largely declined to face off in public with the frontrunners in the race, including retired Naval aviator Greg Wooldridge of Portland and Bend businessman Sam Carpenter.
“We believe Knute considers himself the presumed nominee, therefore he does not feel the need to meet with his Republican Party voters. I guess we’ll see how that strategy works out for him in a month,” said David Gulliver, campaign manager for Carpenter.
Rebecca Tweed, Buehler’s campaign manager, said Friday that Buehler is “focused on defeating Gov. Brown and is meeting voters every day all across Oregon at community, business and political party events. ... He will continue this schedule now through November and after the election, as governor, when he defeats Kate Brown.”
Buehler was scheduled to attend a candidates forum with Washington County Republicans Saturday, April 14, during which party members planned to question the candidates and vote for whom to endorse in the gubernatorial primary. But as an editorial endorsement forum, the event is closed to the public, said Tracy Honl, chair of Washington County Republicans.
Meanwhile, Buehler declined an invitation to attend a public gubernatorial forum organized by the Hood River Republicans later that day, said Lauren Ales, a forum organizer.
Susan Dawson, past president of Yamhill County Republican Women, said she was disappointed that both Buehler and Wooldridge missed that organization’s public candidate forum in McMinnville Thursday, April 12. Both candidates sent stand-ins from their campaign to answer questions, Dawson said. Wooldridge has attended several other public forums and debates with his opponents in March and April.
“I understand you can’t go to everything, but it really does help to see the candidates in person answering questions and being able to talk,” Dawson said. “I think it makes a big difference.”
Buehler’s television ads also address only why he is a better choice than Brown, the sitting governor. He makes no mention of his opponents, including Wooldridge, who won a Republican straw poll for governor at the Dorchester Conference in March.
“He is ignoring his opponents in the ad in the way he is ignoring voters in the primary,” said Jonathan Lockwood, a communications consultant for Wooldridge.
While Buehler has declined most public face-offs with his opponents, he does meet with voters in more intimate settings. For instance, Buehler attended a Washington County Republicans meetup in February where he introduced himself, met face-to-face with participants and answered questions, Honl said.
“We see quite a bit of him in Washington County,” she said.
Political consultant Russ Walker, who also works for Wooldridge, said avoiding debates is an old strategy.
“If your candidate doesn’t look good at forums and debates, you avoid them at all costs,” unless the host of the forum or debate plans to issue an endorsement at the end of the event, Walker said.
“I think it is big mistake: If you can’t go take public questions in a public environment, then you are not prepared to run for governor against a Democrat in fall,” he said.
Jim Moore, political science professor at Pacific University and director of the Tom McCall Center for Policy Innovation, said Buehler is using a strategy that worked for Kate Brown when Buehler attempted to unseat her as secretary of state six years ago.
“It’s an incumbent strategy: I am the strong frontrunner so I will go to closed meetings, but I am not going to go to ones that are open and give free advertising or coverage to my opponents to advance themselves at my expense,” Moore said.
“It’s a strategy that works if you make the assumption that you are so far ahead that you don’t want to give your opponents any facetime so they appear equal to you in the public’s eye. It’s better if the opponents complain that the candidate wouldn’t come here and talk to us, because it looks like little kids who are not allowed at the big people’s table.”
There haven’t been any publicly released scientific polls since the March 6 primary election filing deadline that show whether Buehler is safe to make that assumption, Moore said.