LA GRANDE, Ore. – In an age of hyper-partisan politics, alienating the party base can be political suicide for a lawmaker. Oregon Republicans predicted a voter backlash from a pair of budget-balancing tax hikes last year. But the first to feel the heat aren't Democratic state lawmakers. Instead, two eastern Oregon Republicans face challengers from within their own party after voting in favor of raising taxes.
Oregon Republican Party Chair Bob Tiernan isn't known for mincing words.
Bob Tiernan: “We had two Republicans who voted for these silly taxes. And so I think those will be the first two people who are going to lose their race. I think they're gone.”
Tiernan is referring to Representatives Bob Jenson and Greg Smith. The two come from House districts that cover four counties in rural northeast Oregon. Tiernan's been publicly advocating voters to kick the veteran lawmakers out of office…not by electing a Democrat, but by voting for their challengers in the May Republican primary. Bob Jenson faces corrections worker Mike Mathisen. Greg Smith faces a former Union County Commissioner named Colleen MacLeod. But these days, MacLeod doesn't sound much like someone running for office:
Colleen MacLeod: “We've sort of immersed ourselves in that coffee/tea sort of business world"
MacLeod and her husband are getting ready to open a coffee shop in downtown La Grande. The target opening date? May 1st, just weeks before the primary.
Colleen MacLeod: “Like I don't have enough on my schedule of things to do right now.”
MacLeod hadn't planned to jump back into politics. But she decided to run for the state legislature after Greg Smith voted in favor of a tax increase for upper-income earners. That, along with a corporate tax increase Smith did not support, eventually made it to the ballot. They passed statewide, but both tax measures failed by wide margins in northeast Oregon. MacLeod said she couldn't believe Smith voted in favor of a tax hike:
Colleen MacLeod: “I was upset about that because I'm a conservative Republican. And the very core of conservative Republican is smaller government, less taxes.”
Compounding the problem, in MacLeod's eyes, were allegations that Greg Smith traded his vote on the tax hike for legislative approval of money for several projects in his district. He also won a tax break for companies that buy logging equipment. Smith says he has no regrets.
Greg Smith: “I had to figure out how do I protect a district that was facing 20 percent unemployment and protect those jobs and those industries that were vital to our well-being.”
Smith shrugs off the rhetoric coming from Oregon GOP Chair Bob Tiernan. He says he doesn't think voters in his district will pay it much attention.
Greg Smith: “Our folks out here are independent. They're strong-willed, they're strong-minded, and they don't need Portland and Salem telling them how to vote or who they should vote for.”
Many in Smith's hometown of Heppner say they like the fact that Smith has been able to secure money for local projects. Heppner Mayor Les Paustain, a Democrat, says Smith is an advocate for agricultural and natural resource issues.
Les Paustain: “He is a person to where it doesn't matter which side of the aisle he's on, he will vote for the betterment of his district.”
Retired Morrow County judge turned wheat farmer Louis Carlson says he thinks Smith will weather the current political challenge he's facing. But Carlson says Smith's tax vote did raise some eyebrows in the district.
Louis Carlson: “Well, it's controversial, no doubt about it. Anybody who votes for taxes in this day and age is going to find some repercussions.”
Those repercussions haven't come in the form of dried-up campaign contributions. Smith is outpacing challenger MacLeod in fundraising. His biggest source of support this year is a group that lobbies for medical providers who serve patients on the Oregon Health Plan. A spokesman for that group says that Smith has been a champion for rural health care and it wants to make sure he's still around to support it in the future. MacLeod, meanwhile, is getting some cash from conservative groups upset about Smith's vote on the tax measure. But she concedes she's not exactly rolling in dough.
Colleen MacLeod: “People are nervous about contested primaries. What if I lose and then somebody's mad. What if he loses and then somebody's mad. People like to stay away from a fight in the family.”
Whoever wins the Republican primary will face Democrat Jean Falbo in November. But with Republicans far outnumbering Democrats in this part of Oregon, the real battle is in May.