Oregon's gubernatorial race, running beneath the radar as media attention focuses on California, features a matchup that in any other year would be bizarre, but in 2010 looks like a textbook example of the strange revolt that seems to be sweeping the nation.
In John Kitzhaber, Democrats have a candidate who served two previous terms as governor, was president of the Oregon Senate, author of an innovative state health program, and a man as knowledgeable about the state as anyone who has held the office.
In Chris Dudley, Republicans have someone who has never served in public office (or even run before), who has voted only infrequently and engaged in all sorts of maneuvers to reduce his tax payments. Resident of the state less than 10 years, the former NBA journeyman would bring the weakest credentials into the office of any Oregon governor elected in the past century.
Yet Dudley has at least an even chance of victory. Oregon's mail ballots go out this weekend, President Barack Obama arrives Oct. 20 to give Kitzhaber a last-minute boost, and the contest has longtime political watchers shaking their heads and refusing to pick a winner. Voter turnout will likely decide the winner.
Several polls reflect a trend that shows Dudley coming from only 33 percent in February to over 48 percent in September; Kitzhaber began at 48 percent and has dropped to 42 percent in several polls aggregated by Pollster.com. My favorite pollster, Tim Hibbitts, hasn't published a poll since June, when he had the race dead-even at 41 percent apiece. It is a dicey time for political polling, with the number of cell-phone-only households climbing rapidly, but Republicans clearly smell blood, and the National Republican Governors Association has pumped $2,253,000 into Dudley's camp, one of the association's major commitments this season. Dudley, working primarily on business money, has raised $8.8 million compared to Kitzhaber's $4.2 million.
Both men entered the fall campaign with issues to overcome. Ultimately, the race may be determined by whether voters are more resentful toward a tested but too-familiar face in public office or a new face with wealthy friends and Republican ideas.
Kitzhaber's years as governor (1995-2003) saw the state prosper economically but state government engaged in a nasty standoff between the moderate Democratic governor and a staunchly conservative Republican legislature. At one point Kitzhaber declared the state "ungovernable," and he has struggled to overcome that remark. No Oregonian has been elected to a third term as governor; even the popular Tom McCall could not change that pattern when he was ignominiously beaten in the Republican primary in 1978.
The 63-year-old Kitzhaber is no longer the young man in blue jeans who captivated the state more than a decade ago; his face is weathered by years fishing Oregon's rivers and lined with the burdens of an office he says he is best qualified to hold. He is the "insider" in a year where many look for an "outsider."
That would be Dudley, who is doing a decent job of overcoming a total lack of the usual résumé for the governorship. The 45-year-old Dudley graduated from Yale and played 16 years in the NBA, several with the Portland Trailblazers; he finished his career with the team in 2002. Never a star, Dudley was a reliable backup center and at 6-11 would be the nation's tallest governor. Dudley is diabetic, and formed a foundation to assist diabetic children, his major foray into public life prior to entering politics this year. He presents a low-key, friendly approach to campaigning, but has shallow roots in the state.
During most of his playing career in Portland, he lived in Camas, Wash., a move he admits was to avoid Oregon taxes on his investment earnings. He now lives in an 8,500-square-foot house overlooking the country club in the ritzy Portland suburb of Lake Oswego, and assists wealthy people with investments. His voting record is spotty.
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