As Oregon Republicans prepare next weekend for the 50th Dorchester Conference, now the nation's oldest nonparty political gathering, both the party and the conference have changed.
The gathering takes its name from the Dorchester House in Lincoln City, now a retirement home, where about 300 Republicans met by invitation in April 1965. The chief organizer was Bob Packwood, then a 32-year-old lawyer and state representative from Portland -- and the driving force behind the Republican takeover of the Oregon House in 1964.
Packwood will speak at Dorchester 50, which like its predecessors is not an official party function. It will take place starting Friday at the Seaside Convention Center.
With the support of retiring Secretary of State Howell Appling Jr., Packwood recalled in an interview, "I had been retained by major donors to the party who had given up hope for the state central committee to recruit candidates."
The Oregon House switched from a 31-29 Democratic majority to a 32-28 Republican majority -- in a year when Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson beat Republican Barry Goldwater in Oregon by 64 percent to 36 percent, the U.S. Congress became top-heavy with Democrats, and 20 state legislative chambers went Democratic. (The Oregon Senate, though nominally Democratic, was run by a coalition from 1957 until 1972.)
Of the seven candidates recruited by Packwood, six won, including Wallace Carson of Salem.
A new GOP
The conference was a further effort to set the newer Republicans apart from the party establishment, then led by former Gov. Elmo Smith, by emphasizing different issues. "They might have won in Alabama, but they weren't going to win in Oregon," Packwood said. "They were going to censure me, the conference, and any legislators who were going."
But Packwood said he reminded GOP representatives about who secured their new majority status -- "they owed me one" -- and most came, along with then-Secretary of State Tom McCall, a Republican who would be elected governor the following year. The party's official leaders, however, were not invited.
"We were what they called 'liberal' Republicans in those days; we would be moderate Republicans today," Packwood said. "We were taking positions hoping to be ahead of the wave or cresting, but not behind it."
"They were the young rebels, who are now much grayer and longer in the tooth," said Jim Moore, who teaches politics at Pacific University.
The "Dorchester Republicans" took stands ahead of their time. They endorsed U.S. recognition of the People's Republic of China before President Richard Nixon visited there in 1972 -- and legalization of abortion years before the U.S. Supreme Court decided on the issue in 1973.
Packwood chose the issues to be debated, but legislators took an active part in chairing the discussions.
The first conferences did not have outside speakers. "I did not want a speaker who people would come and hear, but then they would not participate in the conference," he said.
That changed in 1968, when Michigan Gov. George Romney -- father of the 2012 presidential nominee and himself a candidate for president that year -- spoke because he happened to be on the Coast.
Packwood led the first five conferences, including the 1969 gathering after he unseated Democrat Wayne Morse from the U.S. Senate. "But I realized after I was in the Senate that (former House Speaker) Tip O'Neill was right -- that all politics is local -- and that I could not run the conference from Washington," he said.
A changed role?
Though it takes its name from its first site, the Dorchester Conference met at the Lincoln City hotel only once. Except for 1983 and 1984, when it was in Bend, the gathering has always been on the Coast.
The conference now has debates between candidates and straw polls in contests for president, U.S. senator and governor, and it's open to anyone who pays registration. Except in rare instances, there is a keynote speaker, and issues to be debated are chosen by the conference governing board.
Even if the conference energizes Republicans, Republicans are not winning statewide elections -- especially not the "Dorchester Republicans" who dominated Oregon offices in past decades. In fact, no Republican has won statewide since Gordon Smith's re-election as a U.S. senator in 2002, although Chris Dudley came close for governor four years ago.
Brendan Monaghan of Lake Oswego, a political science graduate of Ohio State University and a conservative columnist for The Oregonian, wrote this after the 2013 conference:
"Packwood's dire warnings of a party in danger of being swallowed by the religious right went unheeded. With the conference in the news last year for all the wrong reasons, what has Dorchester become? A party for staffers and consultants and another weekend off for a base that has been continually outworked by the Democrats. Can delegates claim that anything that Dorchester recently produced helped them win an election?"
But Moore said Dorchester's role always has been debated, even during the emergence of social conservatives within the Republican Party in the 1980s and 1990s. He said they rarely have been part of the annual gathering.
"Dorchester still seems to be the mainstream of the Republican Party," Moore said. "You will still see the main players of the party at Dorchester -- but it won't be everybody, and I am not sure it was ever intended to be a place for everybody."
As for winning statewide elections, Moore said the party's problems go beyond what happens (or not) at Dorchester.
Packwood, who left the Senate under pressure in 1995, said the state party needs to change -- as it had when he founded the conference back in 1965.
"I guess some people would say we're not Republicans at all," he said.