- Associated Press - Sunday, May 4, 2014

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) - A fight for the soul of the Republican Party is breaking out in a handful of Oregon state House races, where the business community and other establishment forces are battling figures from the party’s populist wing.

The contested primaries are in districts that are all but certain to elect the GOP nominee in November, so the decisions won’t have much impact on the partisan makeup of the Legislature after the 2014 election. But the decisions of Republicans in Pendleton and the mid-Willamette Valley could significantly shake up the House Republican caucus in Salem.

House Democrats also have a handful of contested primaries, though none threaten to take out incumbents or substantially shift the party’s ideological balance.

Two incumbent Republicans are facing challengers from their right - party activists who are highlighting issues where they insist Reps. Vic Gilliam of Silverton and Jim Thompson of Dallas have strayed from party orthodoxy. The division is also present, to varying degrees, in a handful of other GOP districts where the incumbent isn’t seeking re-election due to retirement or a run for higher office.

“He’s voted with the Democrats on some major issues like Obamacare and giving driver’s licenses to illegal aliens,” said David Darnell, an electrician from Hubbard and Marion County GOP chairman, who is challenging Gilliam with the help of a big influx of $100,000 from Loren Parks and Stimson Lumber, two of the biggest funders of conservative candidates and causes in Oregon.

Gilliam, like a majority of legislative Republicans, voted to create a health insurance exchange, which became Cover Oregon, rather than allow the federal government to create one under President Barack Obama’s health care law. He’s defended the vote, saying he viewed it as the conservative choice to have the state run it.

He also worked on a bill granting driving privileges to people who can’t prove they’re legally in the U.S., saying it would make roads safer and boost the nursery industry, the primary economic driver in his district. After Parks bankrolled an effort to collect signatures to put the driving issue before voters, Gilliam unsuccessfully tried to change the description of the measure that appears on the ballot.

“I’m glad to be a Republican,” Gilliam said. “It’s the philosophy that’s part of my foundation and how I approach being a representative. But I will never be a party goon who just votes the way the party does. The party’s philosophy informs me, but my district comes first.”

Establishment donors have come to Gilliam’s aid, helping fill his coffers with $150,000 in cash since Parks gave Darnell’s campaign $75,000 on March 18. They include political action committees for PacificCorp, Portland General Electric, Nike and the nursery industry, along with banking, insurance and health care interests.

Thompson drew a primary challenge from Michael Nearman, the Polk County Republican chairman, after Thompson came out in favor of a potential ballot measure that would legalize same-sex marriage in Oregon. Nearly all of Nearman’s $33,000 in campaign contributions has come from two social conservative groups, Oregon Family Council and Oregon Right to Life.

“I’m a very practical, pragmatic, calm person,” Thompson said. “I’m not prone to bomb throwing or anything like that, and that’s raised the ire of some people. I’m supposed to be standing up screaming my head off, and I just don’t do that. I’m a tactician.”

Nearman did not return a call from The Associated Press.

Another of the most closely watched primaries doesn’t feature an incumbent. The race pits talk-radio host Bill Post against business owner Barbara Jensen to represent a district anchored in Keizer. Business, health care and other establishment interests have lined up behind Jensen, while Post has secured big financial support from groups representing gun owners and social conservatives.

In Eastern Oregon, one candidate gave back a $30,000 contribution from Parks. Greg Barreto told the East Oregonian that it had become a distraction and “the opposition wouldn’t let it go.” He’s running against John Turner, who has support from current and former Eastern Oregon legislators as well as health care interests and public-employee unions.

The most crowded primary is in a Portland district now represented by Democratic Rep. Jules Bailey, who is leaving the Legislature to run for a position on the Multnomah County Commission. Six Democrats are vying for the party’s nomination for one of the state’s most liberal legislative districts. No Republicans have signed up to run in November.

Three other legislators face challengers from their own party, but they haven’t gained the money or momentum they’d likely need to knock off an incumbent. Democratic House Speaker Tina Kotek is being challenged by Joseph Rowe, who opposes her advocacy for a new light-rail and freeway bridge over the Columbia River. Democrat Barabara Smith Warner, who was appointed to her seat late last year, will face Thomas Sincic, who was a finalist for the appointment. And Republican Jim Huffman is being challenged by Britt Storkson, who says elections for utility cooperatives are unfair.

There’s only one contested primary in the Senate: the contest to take on Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem.

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