Oregon Republicans appear optimistic about the appointment over the weekend of their new state Republican Party chairman — but the test for former congressional candidate Art Robinson will be whether he can raise money and entice quality state candidates to run for office in 2014.
Robinson, a chemist who lives near Cave Junction and ran unsuccessfully against U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio in 2010 and 2012, was selected as the GOP's chairman Saturday in a 55-52 vote over party Vice Chairman Bill Currier after two rounds of voting.
"I'm real excited about it," Polk County Republican Party Chairman Mike Nearman said. "He's proven himself as a committed grass-roots organizer. That was the kind of campaign he ran against DeFazio. He wasn't a big media type or a press conference type. He's kind of a get-down-and-talk-with-the-folks kind of person."
Robinson replaced Suzanne Gallagher, who resigned the two-year position after six months on Friday amid rumors that she would face a recall vote at this weekend's annual central committee meeting in Bend.
In stepping down, Robinson warned that if the party is perceived as "divided and dysfunctional," funding from national Republican groups could suffer.
"This is something that no party wants to go through," Nearman said. "We are kind of in the political winter right now. We have ample time to recover and for Art to get some traction."
Salem lobbyist and former GOP executive director Greg Leo thinks Robinson's ability to get national Republicans to open their pockets during his two congressional bids makes him a proven fundraiser.
"Our fundraising hasn't been very good here in the last six months," Leo said. "I do think it makes us more competitive this election cycle."
Leo left his position with Oregon's GOP in June after five years. Although Leo said he wanted to leave the circumstances of his resignation in the past, Jim Moore, director for the Department of Politics and Government for Pacific University of Oregon, said it likely had a lot to do with a series of public and private disagreements with Gallagher about fundraising and the party's public position on controversial issues such as immigration.
"She alienated a lot of people," Moore said. "She focused on things that are non-starters in Oregon like abortion."
Robinson could run into the same problem. He's the author of the Global Warming Petition Project, which opposes the premise of manmade global warming. In 1997, he suggested that nuclear waste should be diluted and sprinkled into the ocean, and he's compared a public school education to child abuse.
Although Frank Dixon, chair of the Democratic Party of Oregon, said he welcomes the debate on these issues, DeFazio called Robinson's election "a sad day for the moderate-to-true-conservative members of the Oregon Republican Party."
To succeed, Moore thinks Robinson "needs to be a politician who can go out and talk to groups and appear on the radio and television. ... If he shows that he can recruit people who don't agree with his position, then he shows that he is a strong leader for the entire state."
Robinson appears to agree.
He plans to focus on broader themes such as regulation and taxes.
"In Oregon and in the entire country, the regulatory environment has become very oppressive," Robinson said. "We've gone too far and we need to step back. We over-regulated so badly that we lost the lumber industry."
Moore thinks people who donate to federal races will do so based on who runs, but enticing quality candidates for state offices with party dollars is Robinson's job.
"(Robinson's) ability to raise money has depended a lot on out-of-state people who like his views, and those people aren't going to have any interest whatsoever in sending money to recruit Oregon state legislative candidates," Moore said. "He's untested in statewide Oregon waters."
Robinson believes the key to fundraising success will be showing donors how their money is being spent.
"We reach out and say, 'We are doing this with the money, and we could do this much more,' " Robinson said. "What we don't do is go out and say, 'Because we are Republican, don't you want to go and give us some money?' "
Moore pointed to former GOP party chair Allen Alley, who decided not to run for another term in February, as a moderate Republican who fundraised well but struggled to craft a strong statewide voice for the party. In contrast, Gallagher was an "ideologically pure" leader who struggled to secure donors.
Robinson could fill both roles, but Moore said that will depend on which messages he chooses as his focus.
"Is he going to be a strong leader who focuses on the economy, or someone who sticks to his ideological guns and alienates people?" Moore said. "We just got to wait and see which Art shows up."