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Republicans meet at Dorchester conference, look to future following bruising 2014 election

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SEASIDE, Oregon — Oregon's Republicans got something of a morale boost with the resignation of Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber. But they're still trying to figure out how to be more of a force in a state controlled entirely by Democrats.

After a punishing election that gave Democrats — once again — all statewide offices and expanded majorities in the Legislature, Republican activists and elected officials gathered Saturday for the annual Dorchester Conference. They continued a long-running debate in Oregon Republican circles: How does the party end a losing streak for statewide offices that has lasted more than a decade?

Some activists said the Republican Party needs a rebranding effort to show young voters how their values align with the party's. Others said the party needs a better grasp of social media to communicate with voters, or stronger candidates who know their communities.

"We have had a problem in the past with extremism," said Bill Cornett of Portland. "We've had a few people say: 'It's my way or the highway.' That's not good politics."

The party needs to do a better job reaching out to unions, minorities and gays and inviting their input, said Cornett, who is a union member.

Highlighting the party's ideological divide, social conservatives who complain that the Dorchester crowd is too willing to compromise Republican values held a rival rally in Portland for the second consecutive year. Neither gathering is formally affiliated with the Oregon Republican Party.

A Republican hasn't won an election for governor since Victor Atiyeh's victory in 1982. The last Republican to win a statewide election was U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith in 2002, who lost six years later to Democrat Jeff Merkley. The GOP has watched Democrats take over more of the state Legislature, and only one of the seven lawmakers in Oregon's congressional delegation is a Republican.

Even in 2010 and 2014, strong Republican years when the GOP picked up seats elsewhere, the party has struggled in Oregon.

Activists interviewed by The Associated Press weren't convinced that the scandal surrounding Kitzhaber would make voters give Republicans a second look. Just three months after defeating Republican Dennis Richardson to win an unprecedented fourth term as governor, Kitzhaber resigned in February following months of ethics questions surrounding consulting work that his fiancee, Cylvia Hayes, did for advocacy groups. He won despite Richardson pounding him incessantly over Hayes' work.

Kitzhaber's victory despite a cloud of ethics questions shows it's tough to get voters to depart from their favored party, said John Winquist of Tigard. "People who will pull a 'D' lever will continue to do that," Winquist said.

The Dorchester Conference began in 1965 when Bob Packwood, then a state representative, organized a meeting for Oregon Republicans to discuss the future of the party at Dorchester House in Lincoln City. It has grown into a tradition for Republican activists and a chance for them to meet elected officials and party officials.

Packwood went on to defeat Democratic U.S. Sen. Wayne Morse in 1968 and stayed in the Senate for nearly 30 years.

"Nobody likes losing. And I understand we're demoralized after the last few losses," Scott Jorgensen, a state Senate staffer, told the crowd. "Now it's time to get back at it."

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