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How Did the Oregon Republican Party Get So Crazy?

By William.Sommer@thedailybeast.com (Will Sommer)
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast/Getty

It’s been a busy week for Oregon Republicans. On Thursday, the state’s 11 state senators went AWOL in an attempt to block a vote on a climate change bill, with most of them apparently headed across the border to Idaho. 

Armed right-wing militias offered to help them fight off state police sent to bring them back to the Senate, and one senator threatened to shoot them himself, warning that anyone sent after him best be a bachelor.

On Saturday, the state capitol was shut down over threats from the militias. To cap it all off, the Oregon Republican Party sent a tweet mocking the Democrats, saying that “Oregon senate Democrats canceled their weekend session citing a fear that Republican voters may show up.”

While the Oregon Senate walk-out has earned national headlines, this isn’t the first time the state’s conservatives have gone wild. Over the past few years, Oregon Republicans have fought vaccines and brought in militias as their private security. Even as they’re increasingly marginalized in state government, Oregon Republicans have grown more extreme. 

Armed Militias Pledge to Fight for Fugitive Oregon GOP Lawmakers ‘At Any Cost’

Oregon’s political divide falls between its western urban centers and its more rural eastern parts, according to John Temple, the author of a new book on militias that covers the militia groups’ occupation of Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2016. 

Even as Democrats won supermajorities in the state legislature, though, the political tensions between the state’s urban, Democratic portions and the rural, Republican parts have persisted. 

“Oregon is an interesting snapshot of the U.S. as a whole—that divide,” Temple said. 

The Oregon Republican Party didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The state GOP’s loss of power has sometimes driven it to the fringe. In May, the state senate’s Republicans staged another walkout, this time aimed in part at killing a vaccine legislation. The vaccine bill would have eliminated exemptions parents use to avoid vaccinating their children, following a measles outbreak in Portland. 

Instead, because of the Republicans’ walkout, Democrats killed the bill

Both Senate walkouts this year follow in a long tradition of minority parties denying quorums in an attempt to block legislation. Texas Democratic lawmakers fled the state in 2003 to stop a redistricting bill, while Wisconsin Democrats left that state in 2011 in an attempt to block legislation cutting union rights. 

This is likely the first time, though, that a quorum-busting legislator has threatened to shoot police. In a TV interview, State Sen. Brian Boquist warned that he would shoot any of the state police Gov. Kate Brown (D) had sent to bring the senators back. 

“Send bachelors and come heavily armed,” Boquist said. “I’m not going to be a political prisoner in the state of Oregon. It’s just that simple.”

Boquist didn’t respond to a request for comment. 

Oregon Statehouse Shut Down After Lawmakers Flee, Right-Wing Militia Announce Protest

While Oregon has been characterized as hyper-liberal on shows like Portlandia, it was the only state whose original constitution forbid non-white people from living there. Those racial divisions persist in the state, according to Eric Ward, the executive director of the Western States Center, a left-leaning political nonprofit.

“Even slight demographic change is seen as anxiety-provoking throughout the state,” Ward said.  

Much of the right’s anger in Oregon has been directed towards Portland. For the past two years, right-wing groups like the Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer have held rallies in the city in an attempt to bait antifascist activists into fights. 

“Portland is seen as this den of iniquity,” Ward said. 

In January, Patriot Prayer leader Joey Gibson imposed a vigilante ban on wearing masks in the city and took to the streets with his allies, assaulting their political foes and pulling their masks off. 

“They can no longer manipulate the democratic processes in the state, and are now relying on threats of intimidation and harassment and violence,” Ward said. 

Oregon Republicans have rejected the militias’ offers to help the Republican senators avoid law enforcement. But Oregon conservatives haven’t always been so opposed to help from militias like the Oregon Three Percenters and the Oathkeepers. In 2017, a local GOP group, the Multnomah County Republican Party, passed a resolution approving both militias to provide official security details at GOP events. 

The Multnomah Republicans didn’t respond to a media request on whether the militias are still involved in event security.

The GOP’s marginalization in state government has fueled allegations on the right that Democratic lawmakers are acting like dictators, even though they represent the vast majority of Oregon voters. 

“They view it as a very dictatorship-type government,” a spokesman for the Oregon Three Percenters, who declined to give his name, said of his right-wing compatriots.  

In far-right Oregon circles, the Democrats’ near-total takeover of the legislator has sparked accusations that communists are running the state. 

“A lot of people use the term ‘communistic,’ which I don’t believe is a word,” the spokesman said. 

While Oregon’s Republicans blocking vaccine bills and cozying up to militias can seem unique, the state is ultimately a symptom of higher levels of national partisanship, according to Ward. 

“Oregon is also experiencing what the rest of the nation is experiencing in terms of partisanship,” Ward said. “Oregon is seen as this battleground in this battle.”

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