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Buehler, once a Trump critic, now embraces him in new run

knute buehler

BEND, Ore. (AP) — In 2018, the Republican party’s candidate for governor of Oregon painted himself as a centrist, criticized President Donald Trump’s environmental stance and said he didn’t want to be linked to divisive national figures.

Knute Buehler lost to incumbent Gov. Kate Brown by almost 120,000 votes. Now, Buehler is running for a seat in Congress in a district covering a conservative swath of Oregon, and has taken Trump into a tight embrace. Buehler’s campaign video features Trump at a rally and touring a border wall, with Buehler declaring he opposed impeachment.

Buehler’s turnaround underscores how Republican candidates across the country have been wrestling with diametrically opposing strategies: Cozy up to Trump, or distance themselves to woo moderates — and risk losing not only Trump’s base but an election.

“I’ve certainly disagreed with President Trump on occasion, specifically around his tweets and sometimes his behavior, but his policies have been good for America, good for Oregon, good for this district,” Buehler said in a recent interview with The Associated Press in his hometown of Bend.

The president this week declared that the Republican Party has never been more united and predicted momentum from his acquittal would carry him to reelection in November.

Many GOP candidates have already made the choice to go all in with Trump after having learned painfully that not aligning with him can be costly at the ballot box.

Just two years ago, Buehler, a former state legislator, painted himself as a centrist as he ran for governor of Oregon, which last had a Republican governor 33 years ago. Buehler was one of the few GOP lawmakers to vote for a bill that banned people convicted of stalking and domestic violence from owning guns.

In a debate against Brown, Buehler said climate change is an “issue of vital concern,” and noted he was one of the few Republicans to vote to transition Oregon from coal to renewable energy. He criticized Trump for withdrawing from the Paris climate accord.

This time, Buehler is in a tough fight to win the Republican primary to succeed Rep. Greg Walden, who is not seeking reelection to a 12th term representing Oregon’s 2nd District. Geographically one of America’s largest congressional districts, it encompasses sparsely populated Eastern Oregon and the central and southwest parts of the state and is the only one of Oregon’s five congressional districts to routinely vote Republican.

Buehler’s rivals are also proclaiming their fondness for Trump.

“Thank God that we have President Trump,” Cliff Bentz, a former state senator, said in a podcast.

Another Republican candidate, Kenneth Medenbach, participated in the 2016 armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, though he has no realistic chance of winning. A flag emblazoned with Trump’s name and his “Make America Great Again” slogan stands on Medenbach’s property.

The district includes Bend and surrounding Deschutes County, which have been growing more centrist with an influx of newcomers from California, Portland and Seattle.

A few Democrats have filed as candidates, though none is widely recognized in political circles. More candidates may jump in before the March 10 filing deadline, K.C. Hanson, state Democratic Party chairwoman, said in an email.

“Meanwhile, we are happy to sit by and watch the GOP candidates try to out-Trump each other,” Hanson said. ”They are more interested in appealing to the president than addressing the problems the president has created for working people.”

In the AP interview, Buehler described why he’s a Trump fan.

“We have record low unemployment, record high stock market. I think people appreciate their 401k statements. We have the fewest illegal border crossings that we’ve seen in years. We have renegotiation of trade deals, which was a promise he made,” Buehler said.

He described himself as an “independent-minded Republican” and takes some stances that Trump’s base might oppose, such as supporting abortion rights and a path for legal status for immigrants who are in the country illegally.

James Foster, professor emeritus of political science at Oregon State University-Cascades in Bend, said Buehler is playing to the electorate before the May 19 GOP primary.

“His best strategy is to run to the right and become an acolyte for Donald Trump for the primary, put the primary behind him and the nomination is in his pocket, and then attempt to say, ‘Well, in fact, I am much more moderate than I may have appeared during the primary race,’” Foster said.

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Knute Buehler

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