By JONATHAN J. COOPER
SEASIDE, Ore. — Young Republican activists implored their party to support gay marriage Saturday, saying the GOP is destined to continue losing elections in Oregon if it doesn’t get behind an issue that’s gaining traction around the country.
Hoping to claw their way back to relevance, Republican activists and elected officials gathered at their annual three-day Dorchester Conference in Seaside to debate issues that divide the party. Gay marriage took center stage. Two lawsuits have been filed seeking to invalidate Oregon’s decade-old ban on same-sex marriage, and gay-rights activists say they have enough signatures to put a marriage question on the November ballot.
The activists voted 233-162 to support the gay-marriage initiative.
“I believe this is a wedge issue that drives young people to the Democratic Party, and then they learn the rest of the Democratic agenda,” said Jacob Vandever of Corvallis, who is running for a seat in the state House.
Conservatives have long argued that the government should stay out of people’s personal lives, and many activists said the logic should extend to gay marriage.
“The government should get out of the business of telling me who I can love and who I should marry,” said Kirk Maag, a gay Republican from Portland.
Others disagreed, saying nobody should abandon their own principles for the sake of the party. Some said even having the debate played into the hands of Democrats, who stand to benefit from a divided Republican Party.
“If you continue to shake your fist in the face of the living God, you’re in trouble,” said Charles Starr, a former longtime legislator.
The GOP is struggling nationally to find its identity, and Oregon is no exception. As hundreds from the party’s establishment and activist corps gathered at Dorchester, conservatives held a competing rally in Clackamas County to flex their muscles.
The Dorchester Conference began in 1965 when Bob Packwood, then a state representative, organized a meeting for Oregon Republicans to discuss the future of the party at Dorchester House in Lincoln City. It has grown into a tradition for Republican activists and a chance for them to meet elected officials and party officials. Packwood went on to defeat Democratic U.S. Sen. Wayne Morse in 1968 and stayed in the Senate for nearly 30 years.
Returning this year for the 50th Dorchester conference, Packwood implored Republicans to keep focused on expanding their bench of candidates who can run for higher office.
The electorate is different on the West Coast than it is elsewhere, he said, and Republicans here need to be willing to chart their own course. He implored Republicans to seek out candidates who can win a general election. In the second half of the 20th Century, Oregon had a long line of powerful moderate Republicans, including Packwood, former Gov. Tom McCall and former U.S. Sen. Mark Hatfield.
Republicans can win in Oregon on economic issues, Packwood said, but the party won’t be able to make a case unless it moderates on social issues like gay marriage.
“One, it’s the right and moral thing to do,” he told The Associated Press after speaking to the crowd. “Two, it’s going to happen. Get ahead of the curve, not behind it.”
Democrats control all statewide elected offices, the state House and Senate, and four of five congressional seats.
The GOP hasn’t won a statewide partisan election since 2002, when Gordon Smith was re-elected to the U.S. Senate. An entire generation of Oregonians has never lived under a Republican governor. The last GOP governor, Vic Atiyeh, left office in 1987.
Even in 2010, when frustration with incumbents swept conservatives to office around the country, the wave stopped short of Oregon.
Republicans hope this will be the year they can reverse the tide, aided by struggles nationally and locally with the rollout of President Barack Obama’s health care law. The GOP has hounded Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber over the problems with Cover Oregon, the nation’s only health insurance exchange that still isn’t able to let the general public sign up online.