Saturday, September 16, 2006

Oregon Governor Race

Race of the Day

September 16, 2006
52 Days Until Election Day

Oregon Governor

Status: Democrat Incumbent
2004 Presidential Result: Blue State (West)

Outlook: Leans Democrat

The contest to be elected Governor of Oregon has been a race that has at times looked like it could be one of the most competitive in the nation but has more recently given reason to believe the race might have moved sharply in favor of the incumbent Democrat Governor. However, in the past week, noted political pundits such as Charlie Cook have revised their take on this race to a tossup status. That development is very interesting but not being a premium member, it is difficult to figure exactly what the rationale might be. We know for certain though that the race will be competitive and if the current Governor is to be reelected, he will likely have to really earn it.

In 2002, Democrat Ted Kulongoski was a narrow victor in a Gubernatorial election in which he probably should have won by a larger margin in a state where Democrats tend to do well. His term as Governor has been beset with political problems, difficulty at times in dealing with his own party, and an inability to forge much of a breakthrough with the electorate, who has at times given him very low numbers. In this year’s primary, two credible opponents, who by and large ran to his left, challenged Kulongoski. In spit of that, the split anti-Kulongoski vote in the primary helped the incumbent win the party’s nod for another four years.

The Republican primary was even more competitive and it was won by former Portland School Board member Ron Saxton, who defeated two more conservative candidates, including the man who had defeated Saxton in the GOP primary back in 2002. The fact that Saxton was regarded as the most moderate contender for the nomination and thus most electable in a general election gave Republicans reason for optimism, against an opponent who had barely defeated a more conservative candidate four years ago and who clearly had problems with some in his own party this year.

Additionally, Republicans were counting on the presence of an Independent candidate on the ballot, who while he was a GOP State Senator, had a reputation as a maverick who could appeal to liberals. That candidate, Ben Westlund, was polling far behind in third place, but was also registering in the double digits. In a surprise move a few weeks back, Westlund dropped out of the race, saying he did not want to be a spoiler while also making comments that seemed to indicate that he now favored the reelection of Kulongoski. This development was recognized as very good news for the Democrat incumbent, and a poll from Rasmussen Reports showed that he had gained some momentum, by now leading Saxton by 14 points.

It could very well be though that the anti-Kulongoski vote is now far less split and those votes, including from Democrats, who are not happy with the Governor, can now be better concentrated among the moderate Republican challenger. Perhaps, that is why Charlie Cook and others appear to be coming to the conclusion that the race indeed remains very competitive and may indeed be among the top two or so opportunities for Republicans to take a Governorship from the Democrats.

One potential roadblock for Saxton is the presence of a retired television news anchor and Pro-Life activist, Mary Starrett, who is running under the banner of the Constitution Party. Saxton and the Republicans tried and failed to have her removed from the ballot as she may be the beneficiary of the voters of social conservatives who are not happy with either major party contender. The ballot will also include candidates of the Libertarian and Pacific Green parties, who may have the effect of taking some votes away from Kulongoski.

It has been said that both major party candidates are deeply engaged in the campaign and have been quick to counterpunch when attacked. This race certainly has the making of one that should go down to the wire. Democrats are usually favored in Oregon and Republicans have not elected a Governor in quite some time, despite the close call with a conservative candidate in the open seat race four years ago. The contest is likely to come down to who can best appeal to voters on local and state issues, with contentious social issues or national political considerations perhaps playing a part in turnout or the candidates losing votes to minor party candidates, but otherwise in the background. Considering that Kulongoski has had a tough go of it as the incumbent, any mood for change in the state could cost him his job. Until I see some more evidence of that though or see some polling results in which the race has tightened up considerably, I have to still believe that while it will be hotly contested, the overall situation will lean towards Kulongoski.
And let the record reflect, that as of today, I am considering a race to be more favorable to Democrats than Charlie Cook is willing to go.

Saxton campaign link:

2006 Governor races predicted thus far: 11 D, 16 R
Post-election total of Governors predicted thus far: 19 D, 22 R