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Oregon Senate Republicans have tapped a new leader

Oregon state Sen. Daniel Bonham, R-The Dalles, speaks on the Senate floor in March. Bonham will serve as Senate minority leader beginning on April 15.

Oregon state Sen. Daniel Bonham, R-The Dalles, speaks on the Senate floor in March. Bonham will serve as Senate minority leader beginning on April 15.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

Oregon Senate Republicans are preparing to change leaders this month, in a play to ensure they can effectively raise money for this year’s elections.

The 13-member GOP caucus unanimously elected state Sen. Daniel Bonham, R-The Dalles, to be the next Senate minority leader in a vote Tuesday. Beginning April 15, he’ll take over the job from Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend.

Both men are ineligible to run for another term, after launching a six-week walkout during last year’s legislative session. But because of the staggered nature of four-year Senate terms, Bonham has another two years left before he must leave the Legislature. Knopp’s tenure will end in early 2025.

“When I was elected Senate Republican leader in 2021, I said that Senate Republicans had a great opportunity to showcase our ideas and vision,” Knopp said in a statement Thursday that touched on the 2023 walkout and his party’s success winning an additional Senate seat in 2022. “I’m proud to say we did just that.”

Minority leaders have a challenging role in the Capitol, often leading negotiations over contentious bills that majority Democrats can be loath to change. They also help steer the party’s strategy in legislative races. Senate Republicans this year are hoping to fend off challenges in GOP-held districts in Bend and on the central coast where Democrats have a registration advantage.

“It’s three times the work for the same amount of pay,” Bonham joked Thursday, speaking by phone as he moved from his legislative office into the more spacious leadership office.

Knopp’s decision to step aside ahead of the November election is a relatively new development. When this year’s legislative session concluded March 7, he’d signaled he hoped to stay on as leader.

“I am looking to lean into the campaigns,” Knopp said at the time. “To the degree that the caucus wants me to do that, I’ve told them I want to finish strong and finish what I started. We picked up a seat last cycle and I’m a very experienced hand.”

Knopp will still help with this year’s elections, but his plans to stay on as leader ran up against a hard truth. As an outgoing senator, he is unlikely to be able to raise money for political races as successfully as a lawmaker like Bonham, who will be around for a while. That reality led Senate Republicans to begin making plans for new leadership in recent weeks.

The change comes without the rancor that sometimes accompanies leadership changes. Knopp made the motion nominating Bonham as the next leader in a caucus meeting on Tuesday.

“Tim was the leader that we chose,” Bonham said. “Tim led us in a way that we wanted to be led… He would still be the leader if he were coming back.”

Bonham began his legislative career in the House, where he was appointed to an open seat in 2017. While in that chamber, he rose to deputy Republican leader and repeatedly battled with now-Gov. Tina Kotek, who at the time was House speaker.

Bonham participated in a 2020 walkout that scrapped Democrats’ hopes of passing a bill to reduce carbon emissions. And he continues to be one of Kotek’s most persistent critics for her decision to back out of a deal she cut with Republicans on drawing new political maps in 2021.

The lawmaker has served in the Senate since last year and was one of the more vocal proponents of the walkout his party launched during the 2023 session.

“Walking is a terrible way to govern. It sucks. It’s a brutal tactic to have to deploy,” Bonham said Thursday. “When you get to the point where you feel like you’ve been so boxed in, so marginalized, so ignored by a majority party that you think that that’s the option, it’s just a terrible place to find yourself.”

With Knopp headed out of the majority office, colleagues who’ve worked with the lawmaker over his 18 years in the legislature have been effusive.

“He never dodged a fight, especially when his principles were on the line,” former Oregon Congressman Greg Walden, a Hood River Republican, said in a statement. “Through good times and difficult times, Central Oregonians knew Tim always had their backs.”

In 2021, with Knopp serving as leader, Walden created a new political action committee that has poured millions into electing Republicans to the Legislature. The PAC, Bring Balance to Salem, is once again gearing up to spend heavily on GOP candidates, with a recent $2 million donation from Nike co-founder Phil Knight.

State Sen. Bill Hansell, a Republican from Umatilla County who is also leaving the Legislature, said in a statement that Knopp is “a principled and pragmatic leader who served our Caucus, our Party, and the people of Oregon well. He was one of the most effective legislators even when Democrats dominated all three branches of government.”

The praise wasn’t all from Republicans. “Even in difficult moments, I really appreciate that we could get together and solve problems,” Senate Majority Leader Kate Lieber, D-Portland, said in a statement Thursday. “He is a leader who consistently stands up for what he believes in, and I greatly respect him as a colleague and a friend.”

Knopp first won election to the Oregon House in 1998, at a time Republicans were in control. He immediately made his presence felt in enduring state policy.

In 1999, Knopp was a lead proponent of a push to enshrine the state’s unique “kicker” tax credit in the state constitution. Once voters approved that change the following year, the oft-debated refund became bulletproof. Lawmakers who oppose the kicker are unable to make any substantive changes without once again asking voters, a politically difficult task given the popularity of the refund.

“I saw the issue back then as the kicker going away if and when the Democrats ever took control,” Knopp told OPB last year. “I knew the pendulum would at some point swing back to Democrats.”

Knopp would serve a stint as House majority leader before opting to leave the chamber in 2005. He returned to the Legislature eight years later, after unseating a Senate Republican whom he accused of not sufficiently guarding the kicker refund he has consistently championed.

Knopp became Senate minority leader in 2021, and may ultimately be best known for leading his caucus on last year’s record-setting six-week walkout.

The maneuver helped Republicans water down some Democratic bills on abortion, transgender care and guns. Knopp has also credited the ongoing threat of a walkout with forcing Democrats to negotiate during this year’s short session – particularly when it came to passing a bill ending Oregon’s drug decriminalization law.

“Our caucus came together and stood our ground during the 2023 session, which resulted in a historically bipartisan 2024 session,” Knopp said in a statement Thursday.

But the walkout came with a high cost. The Oregon Supreme Court confirmed this year that it ran afoul of Measure 113, the 2022 ballot measure that bars lawmakers with more than 10 unexcused absences from seeking reelection. As a result, Knopp and nine other Senate Republicans are on their way out within the next several years.

While Bonham on Thursday painted his vision as largely a continuation of Knopp’s time as leader, he will also be serving under significantly different circumstances: Unlike last year, when Measure 113′s impact was still up for debate, incoming Republican lawmakers will have a clear picture of the consequences of walking away.

Bonham said he’s not sure that will ultimately matter if Republicans feel like they must block bills they see as Democratic overreach.

“I’ve been calling our Republican candidates to let them know there’s still continuity in leadership,” he said. “Those candidates have said, ‘If I need to walk, I can walk.’ And I think it’s funny that that’s been a conversation. I haven’t brought it up, but people have brought it up to me.”

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