The Republican Party has been defeated in six straight gubernatorial elections in Oregon, but their losing streak may finally be coming to an end. Two recent surveys have former Portland Trail Blazers center Chris Dudley, 45, as the frontrunner in the gubernatorial race. According to Survey USA on Friday, the GOP’s Dudley is leading former Democratic Governor John Kitzhaber by a 47% to 40% margin. Soloflex founder Jerry Wilson may seek the Progressive Party nomination, and received 7% in the poll. A Wilson candidacy would guarantee a GOP victory.
Retiring Governor Ted Kulongoski (D) has been in office for 8 years and is stepping down because of term limits. Kitzhaber, 63, was his predecessor and was in office from 1994 to 2002.
Once again, the Oregon Republican Party has a 23 year record of losing gubernatorial elections, but similar to the rest of the nation, independent and moderate voters are now shifting to the GOP column. George W. Bush lost the state twice, and John McCain was clobbered here in 2008 when Obama received 57% of the vote. Another encouraging sign is that Senator Ron Wyden’s (D-OR) poll numbers have also fallen. No one is predicting an upset in the Oregon Senate race, but Wyden is only receiving 51% of the vote against an underfunded Republican.
Oregon is definitely in Blue America, and Democrats have firm control of both houses in the state legislature. However the dismal approval rating of the incumbent Democratic governor (37%) and the state legislature (26%) has given the Republican Party high hopes.
Both Gov. Kulongoski and former Gov. Kitzhaber pushed tax increases in the past, and they are now in favor of an additional tax hike despite the state’s high unemployment rate. Dudley says “They do not understand the simple concept that trying to tax the state into prosperity isn’t going to work. They have also caved into every labor union demand.”
Dudley is 6’ 11”, and graduated from Yale with degrees in economics and political science. He is already equal to the Democrats in fundraising and has brought in $1.8 million. Comparisons are already being made between Dudley and basketball sensations Bill Bradley and Dave Bing. Bradley of the New York Knicks began his campaign one year after retiring from basketball and served three terms in the Senate. Bing of the Detroit Pistons is now the mayor of his home town.
In 1994 Dudley signed a six year $24 million contract with the Trail Blazers. It was one of the NBA’s largest contracts at the time. He won the NBA’s Citizenship Award, USA Today’s Most Caring Athlete Award, and the Freedom Corp Award. His grandfather, Guilford Dudley, was the U.S. Ambassador to Denmark during the Nixon and Ford administrations.
The GOP basketball star has high name recognition and this week he was endorsed for the GOP nomination by the state’s largest newspaper, the Portland Oregonian, which said:
Of all the candidates, Dudley speaks most clearly to the frustrations of Oregonians fed up, as he puts it, with ‘being 43rd in everything,’ from school reform to higher education funding to job growth, and looking for something new, someone different, in a governor.
Yes, it is a leap of faith to nominate for governor a candidate with no political experience. But if there was ever a time to break from the past and from political convention, it is now. Republicans should nominate Dudley to challenge Gov. Kitzhaber and give voters a true choice for governor in the November general election.
Oregon’s 11.1% unemployment rate is well above the national average and Dudley says job creation is “the focal point of my campaign.” Over 100,000 Oregonians have lost jobs during the past year. “Our state is in a jobs crisis,” Dudley says, “All the legislature and Governor have done about this is punish job creators with higher taxes, cannibalize our education system with out-of-control pension costs, and let government spending grow at an unsustainable rate.”
He is promising to make Oregon more business friendly by wiping out regulations that are stopping economic growth. It is wrong to “overtax and over regulate the very people who are motivated to create jobs,” and he blames the states fiscal problems on public employee unions and an anti-business state legislature. Oregon’s reliance on high personal, corporate and capital gains taxes makes the state a less attractive place to locate a business, or keep one going.
Dudley has no experience in elected office, and is being criticized for not voting in 7 of the last 13 elections. He says his inexperience is a plus: “I believe it is a strength and not a weakness that I haven’t spent the last 30 years in politics. Our state government has grown stale at the hands of insiders.” Judging by the poll results, Dudley’s focus on job creation and economic issues is being well received. Polling data indicates the Oregon electorate is pro-choice and in favor of gay marriage. High profile pro-life and social conservative candidates have been rejected in many past general elections. A social conservative can win, but political strategists say it would not be wise to emphasize those issues in the fall 2010 campaign.
The successful Oregon Republicans of the not too distant past include liberal Senator Mark Hatfield, and moderates such as Senator Bob Packwood and Governors Tom McCall and Victor Atiyeh. Oregon has never elected a hard right conservative to statewide office.
A GOP candidate has to walk a tightrope because if they stray too far from social conservative issues the religious right will mount a third party challenge. That happened to former Attorney General Dave Frohnmayer (R) in his 1990 gubernatorial campaign in which a social conservative third party candidate received 15% of the vote.
Republicans hope Kerry Eggers, the Portland Tribune columnist, is speaking for many when he wrote:
I’ll be voting for Chris Dudley for governor if he wins the Republican primary. I’m a full-fledged Democrat, and Chris is a Republican. I’m crossing party lines, and couldn’t be more than happy to do so. Mine will be a vote for a straight shooter, a man of integrity, a man I can believe in to run this state. I’ve known Dudley since 1993.