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One of the more interesting statewide races on the May 15 ballot is the Republican contest for governor. For a long time, the race seemed to be boiling down to state Rep. Knute Buehler of Bend and nine other people, but now a couple of candidates have separated from the pack and conceivably could challenge Buehler.

The GOP race still seems to be Buehler's to lose: He has a substantial edge in fundraising and experience, but it's not entirely clear that Republican voters in Oregon (or elsewhere, for that matter) are that impressed by candidates with political experience. (Consider, for example, the current occupant of the Oval Office.)

In recent years, Oregon Republicans have nominated a couple of candidates for the governor's office, Chris Dudley and Bud Pierce, who had no experience with elective office. Both ran reasonably decent campaigns, but both fell short: Dudley lost a squeaker to John Kitzhaber and the underfunded Pierce was defeated by Kate Brown.

Brown is running for re-election with just token opposition in the Democratic primary. And it's clear that her campaign has targeted Buehler for months as her toughest potential opponent in the November general election. (Lately, the tone of the Democratic attacks against Buehler is that he's facing a tougher primary battle than was expected at first.)

In truth, two of Buehler's opponents, both to his right, have been stirring up trouble for the GOP front-runner. Neither of the two, Greg Wooldridge, a former Navy captain from Portland, nor Bend businessman Sam Carpenter, has held elected office, but that's not necessarily a handicap these days in GOP politics.

Wooldridge in particular has been a thorn in Buehler's side, winning the endorsement of Oregon Right to Life and notching a surprising victory in the straw poll taken at the Dorchester Conference, the annual gathering of state Republicans. Woodridge, a skilled public speaker, says he's more conservative than Buehler and has the charisma to hold the GOP base together and attract the necessary support from nonaffiliated voters.

For his part, Carpenter says he's a "strong supporter of the Trump-Pence agenda, and not a politician" — two traits that could be appealing to GOP primary voters who find Buehler too moderate for their taste. But those likely are traits that would doom Carpenter in the general election.

And that, in a nutshell, defines the issue facing Republican voters in this primary: Do they select a candidate who's more ideologically pure than Buehler, even though that candidate has little (if any) chance of winning in November? Or do they cast their votes for Buehler, a more moderate candidate, who has the potential to be a stronger challenger to Brown?

Here's part of the equation that Republican voters need to keep in mind as they mull over their ballot: While Buehler on paper appears to be the GOP candidate with the best shot at toppling Brown, the odds still are against him in heavily Democratic Oregon, even though the governor could be vulnerable to a well-funded and well-run campaign. 

And those GOP voters should consider this as well: The last Republican candidate to win statewide office, Secretary of State Dennis Richardson, did so in part because he was able to paint himself as somewhat more moderate than his Democratic opponent. Richardson, of course, had substantial experience in the Oregon Legislature as well. 

Of course, for some Republican voters, part of the appeal of Wooldridge and Carpenter is that they're unsullied by electoral experience (although, to be fair, Carpenter ran against U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden in 2016). But that lack of experience likely would be a handicap in the general election, especially against Brown, who's a skilled campaigner.

Will GOP primary voters pick the candidate with the best shot to unseat Brown, or will they focus instead on ideology? It should make for an interesting two weeks until Election Day. (mm)  

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