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Fall outlook: Incumbents not shoo-ins

Republicans have uphill battle, but Democrats face work


When Dennis Richardson beat five little-known rivals for the Republican nomination for governor, he had this to say on his website: “To all Oregon Republicans: Thank you for your nomination. I am dedicated to being your governor and taking back our state. I need your help.”

But Richardson, a lawyer and five-term state representative from Southern Oregon, will need more than Republican support if he is to be the first Republican elected governor in more than three decades. In the only independent survey before the primary, Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber led Richardson, 48 percent to 36 percent, among the 400 voters sampled by DHM Research for Oregon Public Broadcasting. The poll’s margin of error was 4.9 percentage points.

“At best, Richardson polls as well as you would expect a generic Republican on the ballot,” says Jim Moore, who teaches politics at Pacific University and leads its Tom McCall Center. “At worst, he would be vying for the worst defeat ever.”

Kitzhaber won a second term in 1998 over Republican Bill Sizemore, whose 30 percent was the lowest for a major-party candidate since 1950. After sitting out eight years, Kitzhaber won a record third term in 2010 over Republican Chris Dudley by 22,000 votes of 1.5 million cast.

“It took Dudley $10 million to almost win,” Moore says. “Richardson is not even in the ballpark. Richardson has got to have a strong message — and he has to get a lot of money to get that message out.”

Richardson raised about $400,000 during the past 18 months and had about $85,000 on hand after the primary. Kitzhaber raised $1.2 million, more than half of which was on hand.

Richardson was House co-leader of the Oregon Legislature’s budget committee in 2011 and 2012, when the House was split evenly, but is generally little known outside his home region.

Moore says Richardson will have to work hard not only to shore up Republicans — difficult given Richardson’s conservative stands on social issues — but also win over some Democrats and many voters not affiliated with either major party.

Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by 8 percentage points statewide. About a quarter of Oregon voters are not affiliated with either party.

Richardson also has recent history working against him.

Going back a half century, five of eight Oregon governors — including Kitzhaber — won the two consecutive terms allowed by the Oregon Constitution. Two others, Democrats Neil Goldschmidt and Barbara Roberts, dropped their re-election bids for personal reasons. The only incumbent to lose was Democrat Bob Straub, who fell in a rematch with Republican Vic Atiyeh in 1978.

Atiyeh was the most recent Republican to win, sweeping all 36 counties in his 1982 re-election, including Multnomah County, the state’s most populous.

No Republican has done as well in the tri-counties since then, although Dudley won Clackamas County, and Kevin Mannix carried Clackamas and Washington counties in his narrow 2002 loss to Democrat Ted Kulongoski.

The DHM poll suggests Richardson has a chance to make his case.

Those sampled said that by 49 percent to 35 percent, Kitzhaber should be replaced rather than re-elected. Among nonaffiliated voters, 54 percent favored replacement.

His job approval rating was 53 percent favorable, 36 percent unfavorable, on par with previous results in September 2011 and January 2012.

Kitzhaber says as chief executive, he would take responsibility for the failure of the website for Cover Oregon, the state’s health insurance exchange. The Cover Oregon board voted recently to abandon the $248 million state website, which never fully worked, and join the federal one.

“He’s been good at dealing up front with the Cover Oregon fiasco,” Moore says.

“But he needs to say here are the other things a governor does, here’s what I’ve done, what I want to do, and why I need to keep doing them.”

Kitzhaber says among his top priorities in a new term are the economy, education and changes in Oregon’s revenue system, which relies almost exclusively on income taxes for schools and state services.

“We’ve done some amazing things over the last three years,” Kitzhaber said in a video message on his campaign website. “But these changes are fragile. They need to take root. And I want another four years to make sure that happens.”

Wehby-Merkley Senate battle

National Republicans have their preferred candidate in Monica Wehby, a pediatric neurosurgeon from Portland, who’s making her first bid for public office against Democratic incumbent Jeff Merkley of Portland.

She raised $1.2 million — including contributions from eight current, former or retiring Republicans in Congress — and was able to broadcast ads. Her nearest rival, state Rep. Jason Conger of Bend, raised only about a quarter as much.

The totals exclude spending by outside groups topping $1 million, according to the Federal Election Commission.

Wehby benefited from $500,000 from New Republican, a political committee associated with GOP political consultant Alex Castellanos, and $106,000 from Andrew Miller, president of Stimson Lumber Co. of Forest Grove, and Nevada businessman Loren Parks, the latter on ads aimed at Conger. Conger got more than $200,000 in help from Oregon Right to Life and $300,000 from the American Principles Fund, a super PAC opposed to Wehby.

Although they differed little on most issues, Wehby offered more moderate stands than Conger on abortion and marriage by same-sex couples. Conger opposes both; Wehby said government shouldn’t be involved in either, although she would not choose abortion.

Wehby weathered news disclosures that her former husband and former boyfriend called Portland police and filed stalking reports amid the breakup of their relationships. Neither report resulted in charges against Wehby.

“We all make mistakes,” Wehby told her supporters on election night. “And when I do, I’m no different than the rest of you. I pick myself back up and I get going again and try to make things better.”

Wehby won a majority of votes in a primary against the more conservative Conger and three lesser-known candidates. But in their only one-on-one public appearance of the campaign at the City Club of Portland, Wehby left without answering questions after Conger said the disclosures about Wehby would damage her chances in a general election.

Wehby, on election night, blamed Democrats for the disclosures. But Pacific University’s Jim Moore says that won’t wash in a campaign against Merkley. “She has to show she is senatorial material. She has to deal with the media instead of running away. She is going to have to do debates in the fall.”

Wehby rejected an offer by Portland television station KGW for a one-on-one appearance with Conger before the primary.

“Her campaign is focused just on health care,” Moore says. “She has got to expand that. By refusing to have a debate in the (primary) campaign, her strong message is that she can’t.”

Wehby did appear after the primary on a radio talk show with Lars Larson.

Merkley, through his campaign manager, has gone on the attack to paint her as just another Republican. Endorsements by Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, said Alex Youn, show “she’ll vote with Senate Republicans against Oregon’s priorities.”

But the DHM Research poll suggested that Merkley has to do more. Of the 400 voters sampled, Merkley was rated favorably by 42 percent, and unfavorably by 20 percent. Yet 24 percent had no opinion and 14 percent said they did not know who he was.

“Like Kitzhaber, he has to explain what he has done and why he needs to be in office to continue to do it,” Moore says. “For a first-term senator, that’s tough. But it’s also rare for a sitting senator to be beaten.”

Merkley can claim credit for modifying Senate rules to allow confirmation of executive nominees by a simple majority vote, and for opposing Lawrence Summers as chairman of the Federal Reserve.

Merkley, a former Oregon House speaker, ran behind in the polls until the final weeks of the 2008 campaign. He unseated two-term Republican Gordon Smith, whose re-election in 2002 was the most recent statewide GOP victory.

Moore said Merkley will not benefit from a presidential year turnout this year. “He needs to focus on the Democratic turnout,” he says.

Merkley also isn’t taking any chances. He has stockpiled $3.7 million, more than 10 times what Wehby had on hand. He also is bringing in Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren for a $100-per-person fundraiser Wednesday at the Portland Hilton.

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