Oregon Republicans would probably like to forget the last decade. Starting in 2000, when Al Gore squeaked past George W. Bush by less than half a percentage point, GOP fortunes have plunged in this soggy corner of the Northwest. In 2002, Democrat Ted Kulongoski took the governor’s office in a close race. In 2004, John Kerry carried Oregon decisively. In 2006, Kulongoski was easily reelected, and the Democrats captured both houses of the state legislature. In 2008, Obama won the state in a landslide, and Democratic upstart Jeff Merkley unseated two-term Republican senator Gordon Smith. No Republican has won here statewide in eight years.
But the 2010 race for governor may finally give Oregon Republicans reason to cheer.
This is partly because of the personal appeal of the Republican candidate. In a fiercely contested primary, GOP voters nominated Chris Dudley, a charismatic, 6′11″ former NBA center. Despite his record as one of the worst free throw shooters of all time, Dudley is fondly remembered by Oregonians as “Dudley Do-Right” for his time on the Portland Trail Blazers, where he played from 1993 to 1997, and again briefly in 2001 to 2003. His integrity and good works in the community earned him the NBA’s J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award in 1996, and USA Today’s Most Caring Athlete Award in 1997.
Dudley, who was born in Connecticut and grew up in San Diego, says he fell in love with Oregon while playing here, and after his retirement from the NBA he elected to live near Portland. No mere jock, Dudley earned a degree from Yale before entering professional basketball, but he has scant political experience. He was initially approached by Republicans last summer about running for a U.S. House seat, but he preferred to stay in Oregon and run for governor instead. Given his opponent, Dudley’s lack of political experience may prove to be an asset in November.
Democratic primary voters nominated John Kitzhaber, a consummate Oregon insider. A medical doctor and long-serving member of the state legislature, he served two terms as governor, from 1995 to 2003. He left the state mired in recession and fought with the legislature throughout his tenure. He is running, in effect, as “Governor Do-Over.” Although he now gives himself a “B+” for his performance as governor, when he left office, Kitzhaber famously declared that Oregon was “ungovernable.”
The choice presented by the two candidates is stark. Dudley, who has worked as a successful financial planner and philanthropist since 2003, is running on “jobs, jobs, jobs.” He wants to provide tax relief to small businesses, modernize Oregon’s land use regulations, and offer incentives (rather than direct subsidies) to promising growth industries. He has pledged to propose no tax increases and has vowed to end the automatic budget increases that keep Oregon’s budget in the red.
Kitzhaber is running on a grab-bag of issues. He suggests seeking a federal waiver from the standards imposed by the No Child Left Behind Act. He stresses environmental “sustainability.” He has floated the idea of giving up Oregon’s status as one of only five states without a sales tax, though voters have rejected this resoundingly in multiple referendums, most recently in 1993 by a three-to-one margin. This is catnip to Dudley, who relishes pointing out that as a legislator and governor, Kitzhaber supported raising taxes on income, gasoline, and cigarettes.
Dudley stands to benefit from national political trends favoring the GOP. President Obama’s approval rating here is below 50 percent, and heretofore safe Democratic seats, like that of congressman David Wu of Portland’s western suburbs, look ripe for Republican takeover. But voters in Oregon have their own reasons for being particularly receptive to Republicans this year. More than a decade of Democratic governance has left the state’s economy in shambles. Unemployment is stuck at 10.8 percent, well above the national average. Environmental regulations have decimated the logging industry. High corporate taxes have seen companies like Louisiana-Pacific, a major building materials manufacturer, leave the state in search of a more business-friendly climate. As a result, Oregon Democrats are running away from their record.
The formula for statewide Republican victory in Oregon is simple. Roughly 30 of the state’s 36 counties are sparsely populated and usually vote Republican. Dudley should carry them easily. He’ll also have to take a significant share of the vote in the state’s populous liberal enclaves, like Lane County, home of Eugene, and Multnomah County, home of Portland. If Dudley can capture 35 or 40 percent of the vote in these areas, he should be the next governor. The most recent statewide poll has him leading Kitzhaber 47 percent to 40 percent.
Dudley Do-Right may be set to defy Oregon’s image as just another Left Coast state.
Ethan Epstein is a writer in Portland, Oregon.