John Kitzhaber, who served as Oregon's governor from 1995 to 2003, won an unprecedented third term Tuesday night, a Democrat bucking the Republican tide in a tight contest against newcomer Chris Dudley, a former Portland Trailblazer center.
Kitzhaber began pulling away from Dudley Wednesday evening after Dudley led at 6 p.m. with 93 percent of the vote counted; Kitzhaber subsequently opened up a slim lead of nearly 10,000 votes as more ballots of Democrat-rich Multnomah County were counted.
The Oregonian, based on exit polls and analysis of late results, called the race for Kitzhaber and it appeared he would open his lead as more urban votes were counted. Dudley conceded defeat shortly afterward.
Oregon limits its governors to two consecutive terms, which forced Kitzhaber to retire in 2003. An attempt at a comeback for a third term had been attempted once before, by the popular Tom McCall in 1978, but he was beaten in that Republican primary by Vic Atiyeh, who went on to serve two terms.
Kitzhaber will need all the skills he acquired as governor and president of the Oregon Senate to deal with a sharply divided Legislature. The House appears to be evenly divided, with 30 Republicans and 30 Democrats — overturning a Democratic lead of 36-24 in the last session. The Senate was 15-13 late Wednesday night, with two races too close to call.
The two undecided races are in rural or small-city areas. The 3rd District is in rural Jackson County, often a toss-up district but leaning Republican; the democratic incumbent there, Alan Bates, had a lead of 240 votes. In the 20th, rural Clackamas County and Oregon City, another toss-up district, Republican Alan Olsen led by 299 votes. In both districts, 97 percent of votes had been counted. If these margins hold, Democrats will have a 16-14 Senate margin.
Oregon's next legislative session will face a deficit of up to $3 billion, after heavy cuts in 2009 (the legislature meets biennually). The divided nature of both houses virtually rules out tax increases, and balancing the budget with cuts will be contentious. As governor in the 1990s, Kitzhaber faced a bitter fight with Republicans who controlled the House at that time. But the GOP in those years was heavily influenced by the religious right, which has faded somewhat from influence in recent years.
The governor's race had been close since Dudley came from nowhere to win the GOP primary. The former basketball player had never engaged in politics, and voted only sporadically. But he was known for charity work, quickly attracted large sums of money, and proved to be an attractive campaigner. Kitzhaber was not the incumbent but clearly the insider in a year when that was a negative. Dudley outspent him about 3 to 2.
Oregon's Congressional delegation deflected the Republican tide. Sen. Ron Wyden was easily returned for a third term, and all four Democratic House members won re-election as did Republican Greg Walden in Eastern Oregon's 2nd District. Democratic State Treasurer Ted Wheeler was elected to a regular term; he had been appointed.