PORTLAND (AP) — Conservatives appear to be winning the fight for the soul of the Republican Party in the Oregon state House, decisively beating back establishment candidates Tuesday in three of four districts.
Rep. Jim Thompson of Dallas was defeated by Polk County GOP chair Michael Nearman, who had backing from social conservatives. Thompson’s support for a ballot measure that would legalize gay marriage was unpopular on the right. The district includes a wide swath of rural Benton County.
Two other conservatives, Bill Post of Keizer and Greg Barreto of Cove in Eastern Oregon, defeated their establishment-backed opponents, Barbara Jensen and John Turner.
“I just think the conservative branch of the Republican Party is alive and well in Oregon,” Post said following his victory.
The lone bright spot for the GOP establishment was delivered by Rep. Vic Gilliam of Silverton, who was poised to hold onto his seat despite a well-funded challenge from conservative Marion County GOP chair David Darnell.
Backed by cash from a handful of wealthy donors and interest groups, the outsiders are carrying the flag for conservatives tired of seeing Republicans advance their agenda by making deals with the Democrats who control the Legislature and governor’s office.
Challengers slammed Thompson and Gilliam for their votes to create a health insurance exchange, which was later branded Cover Oregon. The incumbents said they were joining a majority of House Republicans in backing a state-run exchange over a federally controlled one. But to grassroots conservatives, the votes were tantamount to supporting the Affordable Care Act, the president’s health care law that’s reviled on the right.
Gilliam also ran afoul of conservatives with his ardent support for a bill granting driving privileges to people who can’t prove they’re legally in the U.S. Critics collected signatures to refer the issue to voters, and it will appear on the November ballot.
Conservative Nevada business owner Loren Parks, who has ties to Oregon, figured prominently in some of the races, providing much of the funding for Gilliam’s opponent.
Barreto gave back a $30,000 check from Parks after he said it became a distraction. He still had no trouble winning his race to replace retiring Rep. Bob Jenson.
On the Democratic side, House Speaker Tina Kotek and Rep. Barbara Smith Warner easily dispatched primary challengers Joseph Rowe and Thomas Sincic.
The Democrats had a number of Portland-area districts up for grabs, though none threatened to substantially shift the party’s ideological balance.