Julia Shumway

(Oregon Capital Chronicle) The only Oregon Republican lawmaker who supported abortion rights has left the Republican Party.

State Rep. Charlie Conrad of Dexter changed his registration to the Independent Party of Oregon after losing his May primary in a landslide over his April 2023 vote to protect access to abortion and gender-affirming care. He views his stance as consistent with traditional Republican values of protecting individual liberties.

Though his core beliefs haven’t changed, Conrad said the primary made clear his version of moderate Republican politics doesn’t represent the majority of Republican voters in his rural Lane County district. Just less than 1,400 of the more than 8,000 Republican voters who cast ballots in the 12th House District voted for him.

“If I’m not going to represent their voices as a Republican, then I’m not going to fight for it,” Conrad told the Capital Chronicle. “I’m not going to fight for Trump. I’m not going to fight to adhere to that party. As I see it, I don’t represent the party, but I still represent my district, and it’s more important that I represent the district. For me, it’s always been people come first, and then the policies, and the party politics are third.”

Conrad’s term ends in January, and barring any emergencies that cause Gov. Tina Kotek to call lawmakers back in a special session, he’s unlikely to take another vote on the House floor. But he’s continuing to work with other lawmakers on task forces and committees and to help constituents experiencing problems with state agencies.

And he’s not ready to give up on politics – in 2026, voters in his district will choose a new Lane County commissioner, a state representative and a state senator, with current Sen. Cedric Hayden, R-Fall Creek, barred from running for reelection because he participated in a quorum-denying walkout in 2023. Conrad said he’s considering those offices as he weighs whether running for another office is the best way to continue a decades-long career in public service that included work as a corrections officer and police detective.

But if he runs again, it won’t be as a Republican. Like many higher-profile conservatives who have left the party in recent years, Conrad cited former president and current Republican nominee Donald Trump as a reason to leave. He’s reminded of Trump’s influence on the party each day when he drives past the Lane County Republican headquarters on Oregon Route 58 and sees the Trump signs.

“I cannot support Trump,” Conrad said. “I mean, he is now a convicted felon, he is a rapist and he’s an insurrectionist. Regardless of what some folks think about the merits of his policies, his character is abhorrent, and he is absolutely everything that is antithetical to the Constitution – protecting liberties, protecting people, and everything that the framers fought for against the monarch. And now the MAGA folks want to go back to authoritarianism. I cannot support that at all.”

Vote for Biden

He wrote in former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley’s name on the Republican primary ballot, which only featured Trump’s name. Come November, Conrad anticipates voting for Democratic President Joe Biden – not because he’s particularly fond of Biden, but because he considers the race to be more a choice between vice presidential candidates given both front-runners’ ages. Vice President Kamala Harris or any other running mate Biden picks will be better than whoever Trump chooses, he reasoned.

“I can’t anticipate any Republican that would kiss up to Trump that would stand and be an awesome president,” Conrad said. “It turns my stomach to think of that.”

Conrad is now the only Oregon lawmaker not affiliated with the Democratic or Republican party. Sen. Brian Boquist, R-Dallas, was a registered Independent for about two years, but he switched back to the Republican Party last summer to file for reelection. He is now the Republican nominee for state treasurer.

Over the past 20 years, only three other state legislators have been unaffiliated with either major political party during part of their time in office. Democratic state Sen. Avel Gordly left the party halfway through her final term in 2006, while former state Treasurer Ben Westlund was elected to the House as a Republican in 1996, briefly ran for governor as a non-affiliated candidate in 2006 and re-registered as a Democrat later that year.
Betsy Johnson, the longtime moderate Democratic state senator who placed third in the 2022 gubernatorial election as a nonaffiliated candidate, was still registered with the Democratic party when she resigned from the Senate to focus on her campaign.

Other high-profile Republicans in Oregon have left the Republican Party over Trump, most notably Knute Buehler, a Bend physician who was the party’s nominee for governor in 2018 and secretary of state in 2012. In 2021, Buehler dropped the party in disgust over the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol and the Oregon Republican Party’s response of falsely claiming that the attack was committed by leftists.

Buehler’s wife, Patricia, contributed to Conrad’s campaign, and Conrad talked last fall to Buehler about some of their shared frustrations with the current Republican Party. Like Conrad, Buehler supports abortion rights, and like Conrad, he was attacked by Oregon Right to Life, an anti-abortion advocacy group that describes itself as a kingmaker in Republican politics.

“There currently is, in my opinion, no way that a Republican can be elected statewide because of the views that are commonly held on abortion and guns,” Buehler told the Capital Chronicle in an interview last summer. “You can’t win swing districts with those kinds of views where there’s a lot of independent voters, which makes the party perpetually in the minority and increasingly irrelevant to political issues in Oregon.”

Sal Peralta, secretary of the Independent Party of Oregon, said the third party has seen a larger share of formerly Republican members since Trump gained power.

“I think a lot of people who might be more inclined to vote more conservatively are turned off by President Trump, and it really makes it more likely that they will align with the Independent Party,” Peralta said. “Or if we were to support a Democratic candidate, that might make them likely to vote for the Democrat in a race involving a Trump Republican.”

‘Somebody to hate’

Conrad had been registered as a Republican since he moved back to Oregon for college in 1990, but he said he has wrestled for a while with the tenor of the national party.

“One of the things that the Republican Party for so long has always focused on is trying to find somebody to hate,” he said. “You can go back to McCarthy and McCarthyism and looking at the communists, and then you keep going forward in time. It’s communism, then it’s hippies, immigrants are always part of that equation. When you get into the ’90s, it’s homosexuals. You can always throw in Muslims, and it’s just kind of rinse and repeat. The Republican Party, for so long, has just been based on hate and fear.”

But Conrad still considers his core values – minimal taxes, small government, respecting people’s personal liberties – to be traditional Republican beliefs. And he sees his support for abortion rights and the ability of trans people to access gender-affirming care as consistent with those values, that the government should allow people to make their own decisions.

For that reason, he ran as a Republican in 2022, when he won a four-way primary and then coasted to victory over Democrat Michelle Emmons. And he stayed with the Republican Party through this spring, even after protesters showed up at his house last summer to heckle him over his vote for House Bill 2002, the wide-ranging law Democrats proposed in response to the 2022 U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning the right to abortion at the national level.

Those protesters ended up leaving his house after a “tense” hour and a half and never returned – perhaps, Conrad thinks, because one of the instigators turned out to be third cousins and childhood friends with a neighbor who supported him. But the experience frightened his wife, who has worried for the last year that someone who has been radicalized will show up at the home. Other lawmakers have experienced similar harassment at their homes, leading the Legislature to pass a law last year allowing candidates to keep their addresses from public disclosure unless someone files a written records request.

While Conrad is no longer part of the Republican Party, he said he wants Oregon to have two strong functioning parties. He said the House has a core group of strong, pragmatic Republicans who work hard to represent their districts and compromise when they have to, naming Deputy Minority Leader Mark Owens of Crane and Reps. Cyrus Javadi of Tillamook, Lucetta Elmer of McMinnville and Emily McIntire of Eagle Point as examples of that type of governing.

“We need two functioning parties, and that’s what I want to fight for Oregon for, so we have two functioning parties and they advocate from the districts and represent their people, because that’s what we need,” Conrad said. “I don’t want to be Texas and I don’t want to be Florida.”