BEND, Ore. – 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.
Arizona Sen. Martha McSally used to keep her distance from Trump. But as she campaigned in 2018 for a Senate seat, she embraced him and won the Republican primary. She lost the election but was appointed to Arizona's second Senate seat, filling John McCain's remaining term.
Since then, she's adopted Trump's attacks on the press, calling a CNN reporter on camera a “liberal hack.” In a newspaper column, she accused the “liberal media” of being dishonest. The Trump campaign praised her attack in a tweet that included a link to a fundraising page for McSally’s campaign.
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 part 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.
But claiming fealty to Trump is no guarantee of victory.
In Nevada, Republican Dean Heller was a Trump critic and later embraced him as he sought reelection to the U.S. Senate in 2018. Trump appeared with Heller several times, yet Heller lost to a Democrat.
Heller said Trump had been bullish the day before the election, predicting the senator would win by five points. Trump brushed off Heller's loss, saying his base "wouldn't go for him" and recalling that Heller had been "extremely hostile" to him during the 2016 presidential election.
In GOP-leaning Kansas, Trump tweet-endorsed Kris Kobach in the 2018 governor’s race. But Kobach, who served as vice chairman of Trump's commission on election fraud, still lost.
AP journalists Jonathan J. Cooper in Phoenix, Arizona; John Hanna in Olathe, Kansas; and Michelle L. Price in Las Vegas contributed to this report.
Follow Andrew Selsky on Twitter at https://twitter.com/andrewselsky