John Kitzhaber was trailing his Republican opponent, Chris Dudley, by 13,000 votes shortly before midnight on election night in Oregon, but the former Democratic governor told cheering supporters that he believed he would win when all the votes are counted —and his reasoning should sound familiar to Washingtonians.
Portland and Multnomah County (read Seattle and King County) are often slower in reporting, and Kitzhaber was holding a 70 percent margin in ballots from Multnomah County. Despite his optimism, Oregon could be into a final count that would seem familiar to Dino Rossi and Chris Gregoire. As of 11 a.m. Wednesday, The Oregonian was reporting Dudley still held a narrow edge over Kitzhaber.
But it said, "An analysis by The Oregonian indicates that if last night’s voting trends continue, Kitzhaber will win in a squeaker."
Either man will face an evenly divided Legislature; the House appears headed to a 30-30 tie and the Senate is waiting on one last race to avoid a 15-5 tie. The double-tie is unprecedented in Oregon, although one house or the other has been tied in the past.
Dudley, a former Portland Trailblazer center with a totally blank sheet in terms of political service, had been leading Kitzhaber, governor from 1995-2003, in most polls and had boasted a 3-to-2 fundraising margin.
Republicans, totally shut out of statewide office in Oregon since 2008, had no "bench" to produce experience candidates for top offices, and quickly turned to Dudley, whose moderate positions and temperament seemed in the mold of previous Oregon Republicans like Mark Hatfield and Vic Atiyeh. Kitzhaber was bucking the GOP tide nationally but also the stigma of seeking a third term, something no one has done in Oregon history.
In his election-night remarks, Kitzhaber pointed out that his votes were in the same pattern as Sen. Jeff Merkley's when he upset Sen. Gordon Smith in 2008; Merkley, a Democrat, rode late ballots from Multnomah County into office.
Beyond the governorship, Republicans made big gains in the Legislature, but probably the best they can hope for is to tie Democrats in House and Senate, a situation that would not be a pleasant prospect for either Kitzhaber or Dudley.
Oregon resisted the Republican tide in congressional races, and Sen. Ron Wyden coasted to a 57-40 percent win over Jim Huffman, a Portland law professor and the best GOP candidate to face Wyden since he was elected to the Senate in 1996.
Democrats held onto all four of their Congressional seats, with Kurt Schrader in the mid-Willamette Valley 5th District turning back a strong and well-financed opponent in Scott Bruun, by a 51-46 margin. A major push by outside GOP funding groups to take Democrat Peter DeFazio out in his southern Oregon district fell far short, but DeFazio polled only 54 percent, well below his usual average. Republican Greg Walden, firmly established in eastern Oregon, won handily and Wednesday was tapped by Speaker-elect John Boehner to be a "chief operating officer" of sorts for the House GOP, setting up ways to operate more efficiently. Walden won re-election with 75 percent of the vote. Democrats Earl Blumenauer and David Wu were re-elected.
The legislative makeup could be a big problem for the eventual winner of the governor's race. Oregon has had tied legislatures before — the Senate as recently as 2003; and Kitzhaber was serving when the Senate tied in 1971 and spent weeks breaking the tie to elect a presiding officer. The Senate in the 1960s was controlled by a coalition of conservative Democrats and Republicans, but that type of arrangement has probably gone by the boards, with rural areas now electing Republicans rather than rightist Democrats.
In the 2009 legislative session (Oregon's legislators meet biennially), Democrats had a 36-24 House margin and an 18-12 Senate margin and were able to pass an income tax on higher-income citizens, which was upheld by a subsequent statewide vote. Any significant tax increase is almost certainly off the board in 2011.
As of noon Wednesday, it appeared the Senate had 15 Democrats and 14 Republicans, with one race tipping Republican but not decided. In the 20th, rural Clackamas County and Oregon City, often a toss-up district, the Republican led by 300 votes, with 93 percent counted. So the odds for a deadlocked Senate are good.
House races appear to be settled at a 30-30 tie, opening the way to some sort of co-Speakership unless someone changes caucuses or late results change a result.
The legislative winners, and the governor, have a nasty task ahead, with a budget deficit of up to $3 billion for the 2011-13 biennium. Voters handed them another budget headache by approving, with a hefty 57 percent margin, a ballot measure increasing prison sentences for sex offenders and drunken drivers. Oregonians have often approved initiatives adding costs but without any funding mechanism. Prisons are already overcrowded.
Oregon's record of rowing against national tides goes back many years. During the New Deal, Oregon consistently sent Republicans to the Senate and Congress. When national Republicans tanked in 1964, Oregon Republicans regained control of the Legislature and elected statewide and congressional officers. By the 1980s, with the Reagan revolution nationally, Democrats regained their feet and began to dominate the legislature and send members to Congress. Again under George W. Bush, Oregon held strong Democratic positions, a condition that is now under pressure.