THIN SKINNED EX-GOVERNOR FACES HIS FIRST REAL POLITICAL TEST
By Bill Sizemore
After hanging up the phone yesterday at the conclusion of a newspaper interview about Oregon’s governors race, I sat and thought about the posture former governor John Kitzhaber is taking towards his opponent, former Trailblazer Chris Dudley, and how differently he responded to me back in 1998, which was Kitzhaber's last statewide general election. Upon reflection, I suspect that the 2010 General Election will be in reality John Kitzhaber's first real race.
Kitzhaber took me for granted in 1998 and understandably so. The Oregonian newspaper had done such a number on me in the primary, publishing several front page hit pieces, which in their brutality set a new low for Oregon journalism; so much so that the incumbent governor had little to fear from my candidacy. Plus, the economy was boomng in 1998 and Kitzhaber’s favorables in the polls were hovering around 70 percent. My negatives were around forty percent, which made my efforts at fundraising like pulling teeth.
Consequently, I ran no TV ads and only a few radio ads. In the end, the 1998 governors race in Oregon was more or less a nonevent. Absent a serious media budget, I was not able to lay a glove on this very liberal governor, who in many ways was and is very much out of touch with the average moderately conservative Oregon voter. The governor and I had a few relatively civil debates, but when the smoke cleared voters gave John Kitzhaber a second term by a roughly two-to-one margin on Election Day. (Interestingly, the only gubernatorial candidate in modern history to be clobbered by such a lopsided margin was Democrat Ted Kulongoski in his race against Republican Vic Atiyeh in 1982. Ted did a little better than I, but not by much. Twenty years later he was finally elected governor.)
I should also point out that Kitzhaber had a statewide race in 1994, when he won his first term as governor. However, his opponent back then was former Congressman Denny Smith, who frankly may have been the most boring major party candidate in the world at the time. Even policy wonk John Kitzhaber looked exciting by comparison. It is reasonable to say that like my 1998 challenge, the Smith campaign in ’94 was not much of a test for Kitzhaber.
This election, however, John Kitzhaber will be tried. He is trying to do something no Oregon governor has ever done, i.e., take two terms off and come back and win a third term. John Kitzhaber’s metal is about to be tested. His current Republican opponent, Chris Dudley, is vigorously and successfully raising money. Dudley comes across as a likeable guy and has the funds to pay the best campaign consultants money can buy. Unlike 1998, the economy is the “opposite of booming” and unlike 1998, John Kitzhaber now comes across as a retread, representing to many voters the failed policies of the past, the policies that got Oregon into the fiscal mess it's in.
In the end, the public employee unions will come to Kitzhaber's rescue with cash, lots of cash. He will have the money to go toe to toe with Dudley in the battle of the airwaves. Kitzhaber, however has a serious problem. He can't escape who he is. His record is pretty well established. Sure, in recognition of obvious economic realities, Oregon’s ex-governor candidate is attempting to put on a new face and look fiscally sane. But the problem is, he is still the same tax and spend liberal he has always been. His philosophical underpinnings are unchanged and political reality dictates that he can't run too far away from that fact. The public employee unions that control Democrat politics in Oregon won’t let him.
In the final analysis, Kitzhaber has no solutions to Oregon's serious problems and just wants to be governor because, unlike during his 1999 through 2002 administration, Democrats now hold majorities in both the House and Senate and the job would be more fun for him than it was back then.
On the other hand, voters will likely see Chris Dudley as a new face with new ideas and contrast him with a former governor who is beholden to the same stakeholders that got Oregon into the mess its in, the same special interests that have contributed so heavily to creating the anti-business atmosphere that is making it so difficult to create jobs and turn Oregon's economy around.
Ultimately, those Multnomah County voters who reflexively vote Democrat for every statewide office may decide the election and put the final nail in Oregon's fiscal coffin, but right now that is far from certain. Dudley's former Trailblazer status, his fresh face and personable likeability may enable him to win that coveted 34 percent of the Multnomah County vote a Republican needs to win statewide and give us all a shot at turning this state around.
Either way, John Kitzhaber will face in Chris Dudley the first real test of his political career. I suspect Kitzhaber will not respond well to the challenge. I suspect the gloves will come off and he will get very nasty. Kitzhaber threatened to do that with long time friend Bill Bradbury back in the Democrat primary when Bradbury asked a legitimate question regarding some of Kitzhaber's campaign contributions. Kitzhaber's thin skin showed for just a moment and he said then that “the gloves were coming off.”
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I have seen this side of Kitzhaber before and know it's there. If Bill Bradbury's tiny little dig got Kitzhaber hot, one can only imagine how he will respond to Chris Dudley's challenges, which will be many and decidedly more pointed.
This is indeed the lull before the storm, but I suggest you button down the hatches, because it's going to get ugly.
© 2010 Bill Sizemore - All Rights Reserved