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Oregon gubernatorial primary: retreads vs. newbies

John Kitzhaber: back in the governor game Credit: U.S. Dept. of Transportation

It’s not one of those television ads where the candidate strides forcefully into frame. In the case of Bill Bradbury, the longtime Democratic politician arrives on a two-wheel Segway and begins his message by trying to put aside the “non-issue issue” in his race for governor: Bradbury has multiple sclerosis and needs help to get around.

Bradbury assures audiences he’s dealt with M.S. for years and it hasn’t slowed him down; indeed, the former secretary of state retains his Happy Warrior smile and optimism in his approach to nailing down the left side of the Democratic primary for governor. He’s hoping to defeat his old friend, former Gov. John Kitzhaber.

The Bradbury-Kitzhaber race is only one aspect of a May 18 primary that is much more interesting than most. The seat is open (Gov. Ted Kulongoski has served the allowable two terms), and Republicans are offered an interesting choice in their effort to regain an office they haven’t held since 1986.

The party primaries are a contrast. Democrats will nominate either a former two-term governor who also served as Senate president, or a former two-term Secretary of State who also served as Senate president. Kitzhaber and Bradbury once represented adjacent Southwest Oregon legislative districts, worked and recreated together, and have maintained a generally civil campaign. In a year that is supposed to be anti-politician and pro-fresh face, the two leading Democrats have a combined 62 years of elective office. The leading Republicans: zero.

Republicans will decide between two interesting candidates who have never held any elected office (and are proud of it) and who live in the same wealthy Republican-dominant Portland suburb. Allen Alley, a former high-tech entrepreneur who ran a strong race for state treasurer in 2008, faces a challenge from Chris Dudley, a 16-year professional basketball player who finished his career with the Portland Trailblazers and has done a lot of charitable work. Dudley is rare among professional athletes: Not only is he a graduate of Yale University but he has had diabetes since childhood.

Alley clearly has the stronger resume for the job: He was Kulongoski’s deputy chief of staff for two years and he’s run statewide. He has strong business chops and bases his campaign on that background. But he lacks charisma and some Republicans fear he would be overshadowed in a fall race against either of the veteran Democrats.

Dudley clearly has the “charisma” edge; the 6-11 former center is viewed as a bit of a celebrity, although his approach is low-key and his personal life quite ordinary. He admits to seldom voting in Oregon elections, but claims his foundation work for children with diabetes and his post-Trailblazer career as a financial adviser give him management and business experience.

Both Dudley and Alley live in expensive homes in Lake Oswego, a traditional GOP stronghold and source of campaign cash. Dudley grew up in a prominent family, graduated in economics from Yale, and spent most of his adult life among multi-millionaire athletes. Alley has a more middle-class upbringing but his entrepreneurial career also brought him into close contact with upper-income people and made him wealthy. He worked to contact ordinary voters by walking some 400 miles across Oregon to mix with the folks.

Dudley has the edge in fundraising, including considerable out-of-state money, and has picked up endorsements from most of the state’s Republican office-holders, despite vague positions on major issues. He picked up the endorsement of The Oregonian, the state’s largest newspaper, which noted, “Yes, it is a leap of faith to nominate for governor a candidate with no political experience. But if there was ever a time to break from the past and from political convention, it is now.”

Bradbury is clearly to the left of Kitzhaber, who is positioning himself as a centrist on most issues and looking toward a general election in which independents will likely decide the outcome. Oregon’s primary is closed: Independents cannot vote, and voters must register in one party

The state’s major downstate paper, the Eugene Register-Guard, was less impressed and endorsed Alley. Regarding Dudley, the R-G commented, “But in debate and in conversation, it becomes clear that his prescription for Oregon is a less detailed version of Alley’s. Dudley sees Oregon suffering from the same afflictions Alley has identified — economic anemia, governmental bloat, deteriorating social conditions, and a hostile business climate. He offers many of the same solutions — zero-based budgeting, pension reform, and improved tax and regulatory system. The parallels between the two candidates’ positions make it plain that Alley has a superior grasp of detail, and a correspondingly better chance of successfully implementing his agenda.”

Chances of either Dudley or Alley bucking the Democratic registration majority may depend upon the Democrats’ choice. Bradbury is clearly to the left of Kitzhaber, who is positioning himself as a centrist on most issues and looking toward a general election in which independents will likely decide the outcome. Oregon’s primary is closed: Independents cannot vote, and voters must register in one party.

Bradbury’s most controversial campaign promise has been to increase the $6 billion Oregon spends on K-12 education every two years by $2 billion, or 33 percent. Kitzhaber says the proposal is simply unaffordable in a state that balanced its current budget by adopting new taxes. Bradbury won support of the Oregon Education Association, the state’s most aggressive labor lobby, and has generally held support of public-employee unions. Kitzhaber, however, has the overwhelming support of unions working the private sector and the state’s editorial boards, and has a fundraising edge.

Kitzhaber had a rough two terms (1995-2003) as the legislature was controlled by conservative Republicans most of that time, and his initiatives were stymied. His major accomplishment, the Oregon Health Plan, dates to his time as Senate president. He tells voters this year he learned from the past and wants to do a better job this time. No person has ever regained the office of Oregon governor after leaving the office; the only prior attempt was former Gov. Tom McCall’s in 1978, but he finished second in a three-man Republican primary.

The nightmare scenario for 2010 would be election of Kitzhaber along with a conservative Republican legislature; that’s a very long shot, as the GOP shows no sign of retaking either house in 2010.

Both Democrats will have support from environmental voters, always a force in Oregon; Kitzhaber and Bradbury have championed “green” issues for years, and enjoyed the outdoors together for years. Both Republicans are cool to proposals to combat climate change and Alley doesn’t believe humans cause climate change. Dudley has stated no position on origins of climate change, but opposes cap-and-trade laws. A third, long-shot, Republican candidate and the only one with elective experience, is John Lim of Gresham. The former state senator is positioning himself for the Tea Party and Right-to-Life wing of the party, but is generally given no chance of being the nominee.

Oregon voters, always difficult to predict, bucked national trends earlier this year when they gave solid majorities to two tax measures, one on earnings of higher-income people and the other on larger corporations. Voters have traditionally rejected higher taxes at the polls.

Regardless of the outcome May 18, the general election will be spirited. Although Oregonians have never elected a former governor out of office, they haven’t elected anyone with non-elective experience since 1938, and seldom before that. Republicans are hoping the more-liberal Bradbury wins the Democratic nomination. Democrats aren’t sure which of the two Republicans would be more formidable in the Fall, but a Dudley win could give the ex-Blazer important momentum.

Conventional wisdom in both parties seems to see a Kitzhaber-Dudley race in the fall, certainly offering contrasts in style and substance. The joker in the deck is voter turnout. It’s been low through the early mail-in voting, and that normally would favor “base” voting in both parties; that might be good for Bradbury and possibly for Alley. Kitzhaber and Dudley would like to appeal to independents, voteless in the primary — Kitzhaber on his familiarity and grasp of issues, Dudley on the “fresh face” appeal of a newcomer.

The race seems to be Kitzhaber’s to lose on the Democratic side, anyone’s guess in the GOP with the odds going to the newcomer Dudley. Mail-in voting in the last week before the May 18 deadline will decide the race.

The gubernatorial election dominates the primary. Sen. Ron Wyden (D) faces no primary problems, and Republicans are expected to nominate Jim Huffman, a law professor from Portland. Among congressmen, freshman Rep. Kurt Schrader (D) will be challenged in the fall, as will veteran Rep. David Wu (D) in Northwest Oregon. But neither expects a strong primary challenge.

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