By editorial board • 

Richardson scores points, but still faces long odds

Gov. John Kitzhaber has served an unprecedented three terms. And while Republican challenger Dennis Richardson is an energetic and able opponent, the incumbent remains a heavy favorite to make it four.

However, Kitzhaber has some striking vulnerabilities, the most prominent Oregon’s strategic and financial debacle with the Cover Oregon health care program. Judging from last week’s gubernatorial debate sponsored by the Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association, Richardson is going to hammer away on issues over the next four months.

An emergency room physician educated at Dartmouth College and Oregon Health & Science University, Kitzhaber began his political career by winning a Roseburg House seat in 1978. He went on to serve as a state senator and eventually as Senate president.

Running as the architect of the widely acclaimed Oregon Health Plan, he first won the governorship in 1994. In that year’s general election, he edged out former Congressman Denny Smith, son of 1955-56 Gov. Elmo Smith.

Richardson began his political career the same way — as a state representative from Southern Oregon.

He represents the Jackson County community of Central Point, near Medford. He has plenty of company among Republicans and Democrats alike in using legislative service as a path to higher office.

Angered by the PERS reform package Kitzhaber shepherded through the Legislature in 2013, the powerful Oregon Education Association is largely sitting this race out so far.

Meanwhile, the governor committed two glaring and highly uncharacteristic missteps in his appointment of Rudy Crew to lead an education reform campaign and his utter lack of oversight in Cover Oregon.

So why is Richardson down anywhere from 10 to 13 points in the polls? Why is he trailing 10-to-1 in campaign cash? Why did a pair of prominent GOP money men funnel contributions to the Democratic incumbent this week? Why is he trailing political neophyte Monica Wehby, fighting a decidedly uphill U.S. Senate battle, as a point of GOP focus?


The state of party politics

Why, in a state that once elected six consecutive Republican governors and in one 20th century string was governed by Republicans for 40 of 46 years, doesn’t Richardson represent a stronger hope?

One answer is the state of Oregon party politics. To win a statewide election, Republican candidates need to project enough moderation to pull a significant percentage of the heavily Democratic vote in the Portland and Eugene areas. But in recent decades, voters in GOP primaries mostly have rejected moderates in favor of candidates who lack needed cross-party attraction.

Republican Tom McCall made his mark as a champion of the environment. His legacies include Oregon’s pioneering bottle bill, land-use system and public beach protection.

After a four-year interlude, Oregonians handed the reins to another Republican with a stellar environmental record — Vic Atiyeh, the son of an immigrant rug merchant from Syria. In the Oregon Legislature, he helped draft Oregon’s clean air and clean water acts.

Atiyeh, who died last weekend at the age of 91, ran on a tax-cutting platform. But when the recession sapped state revenue, he reversed course and raised taxes instead. He used some of the money to invest in Oregon’s college system, which he viewed as an engine of job-production and thus economic stimulus. That earned him the undying enmity of the OEA, which wanted to see the money spent on the state’s K-12 system instead.

Oregon hasn’t elected a Republican governor since, and one by-product has been a sadly short-sighted disinvestment in higher education. The OEA has been a big booster of Democrats, and K-12 has been rewarded with a disproportionate share of Oregon’s education spending.

Atiyeh is widely regarded as an Oregon statesman, joining several of his 20th century Republican counterparts, including Douglas McKay, Mark Hatfield and, of course, McCall.

Like Bob Packwood, who made his mark in the U.S. Senate, they were moderate, pragmatic advocates of good government. They never fell under the spell of ideology or ideologues. Even Wayne Morse, known as “The Lion of the Senate” for his fierce opposition to the Vietnam War, began his public service under Oregon’s expansive and welcoming GOP tent.


Richardson has an opportunity

In today’s political climate, a GOP candidate would not survive the primary if he or she championed a bottle bill, tighter land-use laws, increased environmental protections or any kind of tax hike. Orientation on social issues has become a GOP litmus test that moderate candidates rarely pass.

Richardson, however, did not face serious competition in the May primary. He did not need to hit all those GOP buttons in a high-profile campaign, giving him leeway to run a more moderate campaign in the general election.

The GOP challenger accounted himself well during Friday’s debate in Salem. He hammered Kitzhaber where it hurt on the appointment of Rudy Crew despite clear warnings, and his 2013-14 Cover Oregon catastrophe. He also scored points in painting the governor, who has become a Portland-based commuter, as absent, aloof and inattentive.

Kitzhaber holds himself out, more than anything, as a champion of affordable and effective education and health care systems. Yet he failed us on both counts during his most recent watch. In contrast, he rightfully claims credit for pulling legislators into a fall special session that approved PERS reforms left languishing at the end of the regular 2013 session.


Need a series of debates

As Oregonians, we will be served best if last week’s event is the first in a series of such debates. Normal strategy for a candidate running comfortably ahead is to hunker down, but, to his credit, Kitzhaber has never been afraid to engage. He gave as good as he got at times in the debate, and he has the political and communication skills to continue putting his record in its best light.

Clearly, the governor was not entirely comfortable exposing himself to a public slicing-and-dicing of his record. But if his campaign does not allow more such appearances, Richardson will have even more ammunition for claims that the governor is isolated and inaccessible.

In the final analysis, it’s hard to see any Republican capturing the top prize in Oregon, given its unfavorable electoral math, without moving further to the middle than currently seems possible. This predicament is Richardson’s greatest challenge in the upcoming campaign.

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