Bend Republican Chris Telfer, a former city council member and one-time candidate for Oregon treasurer, got the first inkling of the coming political storm from a colleague who had just gotten off the phone with a representative from a polling firm. The pollster wanted to know how the legislator felt about the possibility of Tim Knopp challenging Telfer in the May primary.
It was disquieting news for Telfer, a fiscally conservative Republican who was coming off a successful legislative session that saw some of her high priority jobs and economic development bills passed.
Knopp, a former Oregon House majority leader, left the legislature to take a job with the Central Oregon Builders Association more than half a decade ago. But Knopp has remained active, managing two of the most powerful political action committees in Central Oregon, the builder's Central Oregonian's for Affordable Housing PAC and his Reagan PAC, named after Knopp's political role model, Ronald Reagan. As such, Knopp is one of the most effective political power brokers in Deschutes County. If anyone could unseat a relatively popular incumbent on her own turf it was Knopp.
Telfer soon heard back through the Republican Party grapevine that Knopp had squelched rumors of a bid to challenge.
Telfer's staff collectively exhaled. Just weeks later, Telfer played host to representatives from Knopp's organization in Salem before the end of the session. They chatted in her office and visited the Senate floor. When Telfer asked them about the possibility of Knopp challenging her in the primary, they pleaded ignorance. They may have been less than forthcoming.
The Opening Shot
Less than a month later, on the filing deadline, Knopp announced he would seek Telfer's seat, setting the stage for a bitter inter-party fight that Republicans try to avoid having in public.
Although Knopp's announcement came as a surprise to many inside the rotunda, there's plenty of precedent for this kind of challenge. It's part of a larger trend of moderate leaning Republicans being forced out of office, or at least into bruising primaries, by the party's far right wing.
"By any standard of looking at the entire political spectrum of Oregon, Telfer is a pretty conservative person and votes conservatively in the state senate, but she's not as far right as Knopp," said Bill Lunch, a recently retired Oregon State University political science professor and frequent commentator on public radio.
Knopp makes no apologies for his conservative social views.
"Nobody should be surprised that I'm pro life or that I'm for traditional marriage," Knopp said.
However, he isn't making it a focus of his campaign or his legislative agenda.
"I think that 95 percent of my time will be spent on budget issues, but I do have those positions, and they're deeply held beliefs and they're not going to change," he said.
Lunch and other political insiders, including Telfer's colleagues, say there is no danger that the contested primary will open up the seat to a Democratic challenger. (The winner of the primary will face local democrat Geri Hauser who works for the Deschutes County Clerk's Office.) However, a Knopp victory could have some unintended consequences by pushing the party further to the right. That can be problematic in Oregon where more moderate Republicans have been dropping out of the party in places like suburban Portland.
"If you look over the registration numbers, Republicans have been suffering in terms of the percentage of voters registered with the party. And if you drill into those numbers and look at decline in voter registrations, it's been in the Willamette Valley and those places that used to be greater strongholds for moderate Republicans," Lunch said.
In other words, what's best for Knopp might not be the best for the party, according to Lunch.
A House Divided
Despite the early warning signs, Telfer a former Democrat and pro-choice Republican was taken aback by the news of Knopp's filing, which she received through her party leadership in Salem.
"My initial response was, 'Why?'... I had no clue that anybody was unhappy," Telfer said in a recent interview.
"I think, if I recall, he called the day of the announcement. And it sort of felt like having done that to say you've done that. It wasn't a matter of consultation. I didn't feel consulted," said Ferrioli who, along with half a dozen members of the GOP Senate caucus, has signed a letter of support for Telfer.
With the exception of Larry George, a Republican from Sherwood, and Bruce Starr who is running for labor commissioner, the rest of the Republican senate has backed Telfer verbally or in writing, said Tiffany Telfer, Chris Telfer's daughter and chief of staff.
For his part, Knopp said he is getting plenty of support behind the scenes from Republican legislators who want to see him back in Salem. It was some of those same people, said Knopp, who reached out to him last year and asked him to run, in part because they were unhappy with some of Telfer's work. When asked specifically who had reached out, Knopp declined to name any of the party members that he says jumpstarted the campaign talk.
"It was a lot of people who had asked. I felt I was in a position to do something and I felt obligated to do it," Knopp said.
There has been speculation that Knopp would attempt insert himself into a leaderhip roll within his party. That would theoretically give him a shot at remaking the party, both in terms of personnel and policy. The party's senate leader recruits candidates for elected office and sets the party's legislative agenda. However, despite their narrow one-seat edge, Democrats say they don't see the GOP as posing a real threat anytime soon given the state's recent political and demographic shifts.
That puts Senate Republicans in the role of "saying no" all the time, "something they're already pretty good at," said Lee Beyer, a Eugene Democrat and longtime legislator who served with Knopp in the House.
Ferrioli, however, doesn't mince words when he talks about the difference between Telfer and her challenger. If Knopp were to prevail in the primary, Ferrioli said it would be a "return to the days when Republicans stood in a circle and shot inward."
While Byer doesn't see much of an ideological divide between Telfer and Knopp, he said he found it interesting that Knopp is attacking Telfer on some of the issues that are her calling cards in Salem, including fiscal restraint and economic development.
"All of those issues that Tim is raising sound exactly like Chris Telfer," Beyer said.
As far as the big ticket items that Knopp is pushing, including PERS reform and the estate and capital gains taxes, those are non-starters in Salem as long as Democrats are in control, Byer said.
"Everybody wants to talk about PERS, but as Bruce Hanna said recently, there isn't much more that you can do with PERS. The legislature did almost everything that it could do to reform PERS in 2003," Beyer said.
During the several public debates, Knopp has criticized Telfer for failing to put a dent in the region's persistent unemployment rate, a charge that The Oregonian recently examined as the subject of its "PolitiFact" column and found to be only half true, given that a single legislator can do very little to change the unemployment rate.
Knopp has also hit Telfer on pocketbook issues, including the gas tax increase that was passed in 2008 with overwhelming bi-partisan support. Telfer has defended her vote, pointing out that nearly half of that money was earmarked for Oregon cities and counties that were sorely in need of transportation help. Among the projects funded locally was the long-sought Murphy Road interchange in Bend. The alternative no-vote could have resulted in no dollars and jobs for Central Oregon, said Telfer.
Knopp doesn't hesitate to say that he would have voted against the gas tax, purely on principle, even if it meant foregoing funding for some local construction work.
"If the policy is we're going to pass tax increases to create jobs, I have a big problem with that because that's going to fail," said Knopp.
But it's a more partisan issue that made the biggest headlines and caused the widest rift in the party, namely Telfer's role in the redistricting process and her failure to wrangle concessions that would have protected her fellow Bend Republican Jason Conger from a democratic challenge in his home district. Republicans were hoping to see that district, which consists primarily of the city of Bend, broken up. Instead the district was maintained and with Democrat's registration edge, which Knopp points out has widened under the new plan.
Conger, who defeated Democrat Judy Stiegler to win the seat in 2010 publicly endorsed Knopp, a break from the Republican tradition of sitting out inter-party primary feuds. Speaking this past week, Conger said it was a difficult decision and one that he weighed for several days before agreeing to endorse Knopp publicly.
Conger dismissed criticism that his endorsement was a matter of political payback for Knopp who has supported Conger with significant contributions through his Political Action Committees.
"That would be a shallow reason to make an endorsement in a primary. That is not part of the decision process for me," said Conger.
However, he added that Knopp has done much to assist him both on a personal level and a financial level and that counts for something.
"I value loyalty very highly and that certainly played into it," Conger said.
Mike McLane, another local Oregon House Republican who has benefited handsomely from Knopp's PAC's and publicly endorsed Knopp, declined to comment about the endorsement.
Of course, it's probable that neither issues nor endorsements will decide the primary. Rather, like most things in politics these days, it may come down to money, an area where Knopp holds a distinct edge.
When the first financial reports were handed in last week, Knopp had raised close to $100,000, most of it from big donors including $25,000 from Loren Parks, the conservative king maker from Nevada who long bankrolled activist Bill Sizemore. By way of contrast, Telfer officially raised $2,500 during the same period, though she has yet to report any contributions since March 2. Telfer said she has since closed the gap, but knows she will have an uphill battle to match Knopp who said he has set a goal of raising $150,000 to $200,000 before the primary.
"We're trying to bring our name ID up to where our opponent's is, and that's a function of two things - hard work and money," Knopp said.
In the meantime, Deschutes County residents are likely to be in store for a blitz of campaign propaganda that will offer a glimpse of just how far right the party might be headed.
The Local Ballot
Ballots will be mailed April 27 for the May 15
Here's a rundown of some of the local races:
Deschutes County Commission
Oregon Senate Dist. 27 (Deschutes County)
Chris Telfer (incumbent)
Deschutes County Circuit Judge
Measure 9-85 (Deschutes 9-11 Service District)
Would replace the current five-year levy system with a new permanent rate at the same amount.