Ask any Oregon Republican, and they'll tell you that the Dorchester Conference is where the fun is.

Ask any Oregon Republican, and they'll tell you that the Dorchester Conference is where the fun is.

First off, you've got the beach, and the fun City of Seaside. Then you've got the meeting of the clans, appearances by big names in Oregon Republicanism, the speeches and debates, the booths, the lunches, and finally, last but not least, the after-parties.

Dorchester has always contributed to the sense that there is a viable Republican Party in Oregon, especially since 2002, when Gordon Smith's reelection to the Senate marked the party's last statewide victory. In good times and bad, Dorchester is where Republicans go to discuss, strategize, kick up their heels, and, hopefully, unite.

But this year, for the first time in recent Oregon political history, a considerable phalanx of socially conservative Republicans RSVPed with a resounding no to Dorchester and threw their own party on March 8 at the Monarch Hotel in Clackamas.

It's all about the Great Divide, an internecine schism that causes Democrats to salivate and political analysts to warn of a future defined by Progressive Left unification and permanent GOP marginalization.

The dynamic — which pits the establishment wing against the more socially conservative wing — works the same in Oregon as it does nationally, but it's particularly problematic here. Oregon Republicans are outnumbered just enough to ensure that any divisions which manifest in an election will only set the future record of Democratic victory in stone.

In the breakaway corner stand social conservatives who oppose same-sex marriage and untrammeled abortion rights as part of a larger vision. They are joined by fiscally responsible Republicans who decry lax immigration policy, evaporating debt-ceilings, and the specter of a centrally-governed progressive transformation. There is a wealth of issue overlap between these two groups.

In the other corner stand the establishment Republicans, known in some precincts as moderates, or even liberals, and Republicans in Name Only (RINOs). These politicos purport to have seen writing on the wall about the way the country is moving.

They worry about alienating Hispanic voters with tough immigration policies. They make noises which signal they are prepared to welcome same-sex marriage under the big tent. They secretly wish that abortion could be on the back-burner, indefinitely, so the party can concentrate on not being perceived as waging a war on women.

In Oregon, establishment Republicans are given to worry when assault rifles are auctioned at signature events. They roll their eyes when conservative notables bang the "birther" drum. Their concerns have merit, as a Democrat-friendly media is only too happy to highlight these missteps and broad-brush the entire party as extreme.

The breakaways counter that the Republican Party is in danger of becoming irrelevant not because it is too conservative, but the opposite. They point to what they see as a compromise of principles and dearth of conservative leadership.

At the Monarch Hotel event — dubbed a Freedom Rally — a lively assortment of speakers took the podium. Among them were five-term House representative and former gubernatorial candidate Kevin Mannix, current House District 54 representative and candidate for Jeff Merkley's Senate seat Jason Conger, and National Right to Life President Carol Tobias. (See "Monarch Rally Highlights" immediately following.)

Some say the GOP's contentious "conversation" is good for the party. A meaningful discussion is certainly warranted in light of recent big-ticket Republican losses and demographic and cultural change. But despite President Obama's Affordable Care Act horror stories, and despite the fact that the outlook is guardedly good for Republicans in the 2014 midterm, the GOP conversation is taking place against a backdrop of entrenching liberal power.

In Oregon, social conservatives have apparently had enough. They're not interested in Dorchester's discussion about same-sex-marriage inclusiveness. They assail Republicans who maneuver to demote right-to-life issues to secondary status. They're convinced that the real war on women is being waged by forces that seek to neuter and denude what makes America a great nation, and replace it with a dangerously intrusive socialist democracy.

One of Rush Limbaugh's axioms is that "conservatism works, every time it is tried." One need only look to Wisconsin to see the truth of that. Governor Scott Walker took a courageous stand, banked millions in budget surplus, and sent the nanny-state crowd packing like boorish guests at Downton Abbey.

In Oregon, there is plenty of reason for hope. But if the neo-moderates and social conservatives can't find common ground and unite behind a compelling message, we may never find out if conservatism works here, because conservatism will never get its turn at bat.

And that's no fun.

Mark Ellis of Portland is a writer for the U-Choose Education Forum,