How Do You Turn a Blue State Like Oregon Purple?
If you want to talk about an overlooked all-time woulda-coulda-shoulda race that haunts the Republicans, let’s take a look at Oregon’s gubernatorial election in 2010.
The Democratic nominee was former governor John Kitzhaber, making a comeback bid after serving as in the office from 1995 to 2003. During those terms he fought with a Republican-held state legislature and famously declared, six days before the end of his second term, that the state was “ungovernable.”
The Republican nominee was former NBA star Chris Dudley, who spent a good portion of his career with the Portland Trail Blazers. He founded a charity, had charisma, and seemed like about as a good a candidate as Oregon Republicans had any right to expect.
The good news is Dudley won 694,287 votes, more than 100,000 votes than the last Republican gubernatorial candidate. That got him . . . 47.7 percent to Kitzhaber’s 49.2 percent — the closest any Republican had come in the last seven gubernatorial elections.
But there are no silver medals for coming in second in a governor’s race. Dudley moved to San Diego. In his third term, Kitzhaber went on to set up the abominably wasteful Cover Oregon system, which paid $305 million to Oracle for a web site that didn’t work.
Cover Oregon is, arguably, the single most expensive and most embarrassing failure of any state in recent memory. As HBO’s John Oliver mocked, “That has got to be a bitter pill to swallow for the people of Oregon — or it would be, if they could get the pill, which they can’t, because their [stinky] web site is broken.” In midsummer, a poll of the state found 20 percent thought Kitzhaber deserved “all” of the blame for Cover Oregon, 19 percent said “most,” and 37 percent said “some.”
But not a single big-name Oregon Democrat dared challenge Kitzhaber this year. Okay, correction — a guy with a big name, “Ifeanyichukwu Diru” challenged him, but he had no experience and almost no money. Even then, he won 9 percent against Kitzhaber in the primary.
This year, aiming to derail Kitzhaber’s ambitions for a fourth term — Republicans are running a candidate with no glamorous NBA career, 65-year-old state representative Dennis Richardson — a veteran and successful lawyer.
One poll had Richardson within 7 percentage points, but another one shows him trailing mightily — 50 percent for Kitzhaber, just 29 percent for Richardson. Note this depressing statistic:
The poll found that voters in general aren’t paying much attention to this election.
66 percent of respondents couldn’t name the Republican candidate for Governor, Dennis Richardson. And 59 percent couldn’t name the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, Monica Wehby.
Governor John Kitzhaber did a little better; 62 percent could name him as the Democratic candidate for governor, but 38 percent couldn’t. Senator Merkley was recognized by 46 percent as his party’s candidate.
As I mentioned Friday, this is an example of “Set It and Forget It Leftism.” Dear Oregonians, I get it. Your state is gorgeous. If I had one of the world’s biggest bookstores, huge farmers’ markets, endless chefs experimenting with all kinds of local produce and seafood, an exploding menagerie of breweries, wineries, distilleries, and seemingly limitless mountains and rivers to explore, I might not be that interested in politics, either. But come on. Check in every once in a while.
The last time a Republican won a statewide race in Oregon was 2002 — Senator Gordon Smith. It is a depressing possibility that the GOP either cannot win, or faces enormous obstacles to win in the higher-turnout circumstances that occur when a state allows citizens to vote by mail. Oregon went to a complete vote-by-mail system in 1998, after growing use throughout the 1980s and 1990s.
A ballot box in downtown Portland’s Pioneer Square.
Like most other states, Oregon consists of heavily Democratic cities and heavily Republican rural areas. Check out how the Kitzhaber-Dudley vote split by county:
The northwestern corner is Astoria, the three blue ones in a line are Portland, its suburbs, and Hood River; along the coast is Lincoln County, which has Newport; and Lane County, which includes Eugene and Springfield. The little wedge sticking down from the north is Hood River County, which is not heavily populated and not quite heavily Democratic; in 2010, Kitzhaber won, 4,778 to 3,414. Once you drive out of Portland, on U.S. Route 30, it takes you up into the mountains overlooking the Columbia River, and RICHARDSON FOR GOVERNOR signs aren’t hard to find on the front lawns along the road. Signs for Kitzhaber are rare.
There are 3.8 million people in Oregon; 2.3 million live in the Portland metro area. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to win Oregon if you’re going to get blown out in Multnomah County, which includes Portland. In 2010, Kitzhaber won 198,157 votes here to Dudley’s 76,915 — 70 percent to 27 percent — rolling up a 121,242 vote margin. Kitzhaber’s final statewide margin of victory was 22,238.
Back in September, Richardson got a bit of help in advertising downtown:
The eye-catching, building-sized campaign ads have popped up across the Portland over the past few weeks.
They’re black and white and get right to the point — at least for those in the know:
4 more years???”
The minimalistic message cost $200,000 and was a gift to Republican gubernatorial candidate Rep. Dennis Richardson from Seneca Sustainable Energy, one of the companies owned by the Eugene-based timber family led by Aaron Jones. His three daughters, co-owners of Seneca, recently contributed a combined $100,000 to Richardson’s campaign against Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber.
That ad referred to a quintet of scandals and missteps by Kitzhaber. A new sign is more direct:
That sign is posted at the extremely busy intersection of Burnside and 4th Avenue, right around the corner from the wildly overhyped and overrated Voodoo Doughnut, perhaps the Mecca of Portland hipsters. Will it do any good? Or will enough progressive-minded Portland residents simply feel sufficiently unenthusiastic about Kitzhaber to not vote for him this year?