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Pandemic compels Bentz to scuttle traditional political campaign model, shift emphasis

VALE – Not long ago, Cliff Bentz awoke in a hotel room in Medford when it was still dark outside and prepared to drive halfway across the state to attend a fundraiser in Wallowa County.

The night before, he hosted a political gathering in Medford as part of his campaign to win Oregon’s 2nd Congressional seat. Now he geared up to drive more than nine hours to one of Oregon’s remotest counties for another political event.

Bentz, a former state representative and senator, jumped into the race to replace longtime U.S. Rep. Greg Walden (R-Hood River) last fall and while he was ready to campaign, he admitted he underestimated the vast distances of the district.

“This has been work. I knew it would be a lot of work, but I didn’t anticipate the virus or the unbelievable amount of driving you have to do,” said Bentz last week.

Bentz is no longer on the road stumping for his bid to replace Walden.

That’s because the pandemic and Gov. Kate Brown’s order to “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” changed every facet of Bentz’s campaign and forced a shift of his strategy to reach voters.

“The debates, the fundraisers, that has all gone by the by,” said Bentz, an Ontario attorney raised on a Drewsey ranch.

Now, he said, his campaign is taking a different tack.

“The campaign has shifted to online, radio, direct mail, newspapers, all types of electronic media,” said Bentz.

Before the COVID-19 outbreak, Bentz said he planned on at least 15 fundraisers across the congressional district. Those are canceled.

“There will be less money raised,” he said. “But I didn’t want to put anyone at risk.”

Bentz said his campaign shifted to phone work and online avenues to raise money for his campaign.

“You have to do everything from either your office on the phone or social media or TV,” he said, and that’s not cheap.

“It is certainly more expensive. Because you have to replace the publicity that goes with in-person debates and the publicity that goes with appearing in a town hall,” said Bentz.

Bentz said lately he used online outlets such as Facebook and Zoom, a video conferencing application, to reach voters.

“I did my first Facebook town hall last week and did it out of Burns. I have appeared on several Zoom appearances and some of my other appearances will be on radio this week. We are also doing a lot of social media stuff with video with various people who support my campaign,” said Bentz.

Ballots for the May primary go out in less than 30 days and Bentz said another key shift in the campaign will be the absence of political debates.

“The big things missing will be the opportunity for everyone to see how everyone talks, the give and take of candidates, their positions – none of that will happen and that is kind of sad,” said Bentz.

Bentz said the debates are crucial because “people need to know more than sound bites on TV.”

“This is certainly a different campaign,” said Bentz.

It is also a crowded primary race.

Five Democrats are in the mix for the congressional seat along with 11 Republicans.

On the GOP side, Bentz faces candidates with little name recognition and others who are veteran politicians. Of the Republicans running, Bentz said Jason Atkinson, Knute Buehler and Jimmy Crumpacker are his most vaunted opponents.

Atkinson, of Central Point, grew up in Ashland and served as a state senator from 2001 to 2013 and put in an unsuccessful bid for governor in 2006.

Buehler, who was raised in Roseburg, served in Oregon House from 2015 to 2019 and ran for governor in the 2018, losing to Gov. Kate Brown.

Portland resident Jimmy Crumpacker has raised more money than any other candidate, said Bentz, and his presence “has thrown a real twist in the race.”

“The circles he’s been raised in, he has a lot of folks he rubs shoulders with that can put up $2,800 apiece and they have. But he is so out of left field, to suddenly run for office in the 2nd Congressional District is a bit of a surprise,” said Bentz.

Bentz said Crumpacker has raised at least $600,000 for his effort to win the congressional seat. Bentz said his campaign, so far, has collected “pretty close” to $400,000.

Bentz said Atkinson and Buehler carry the most name recognition but neither have the deep roots in eastern Oregon he does.

Bentz said he is a right-to-life supporter and believes his 12 years of experience in the Legislature qualify him to be the next congressman from eastern Oregon.

“I am someone who actually understand the needs of this area. I’ve had far more experience with water, transportation. I’ve been there and done it,” said Bentz.

Even as his campaign was transformed by the COVID-19 virus outbreak, Bentz said he is optimistic about his chances.

“The support I’ve gotten has been humbling,” said Bentz.

Read the full story on the Malheur Enterprise.

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