OR-Gov: Kulongoski Survives
Oregon's Democratic governor, Ted Kulongoski, beat back two primary challengers Tuesday to win his party's nomination. He now moves on to face Portland attorney Ron Saxton (R) and state Sen. Ben Westlund, a Republican until recently who is expected to run as an independent, in this fall's general election.
Kulongoski took 54 percent of the vote, well ahead of the 30 percent garnered by former state treasurer -- and 2002 gubernatorial candidate -- Jim Hill. Lane County Commissioner Pete Sorenson received 17 percent. Saxton avenged his 2002 primary loss to former state party chairman Kevin Mannix by securing 42 percent of the primary vote. Mannix placed second with 30 percent and state Sen. Jason Atkinson took 22 percent.
Kulongoski's win should give him something of a re-election boost, but the fact that he was forced to spend time and money simply to secure the nomination speaks to his potential vulnerabilities. He has had a rocky relationship with traditional base elements of his own party, including environmentalists and public employee unions. The Service Employees International Union backed Hill in the Democratic primary while the Oregon Education Association chose not to issue a primary endorsement, a move seen as a slap at the sitting governor. Why? The unions were unhappy with Kulongoski's proposal to reduce benefits in the public employees pension plan -- a necessary step, he insisted, to keeping the fund financially solvent.
So strong was the disaffection with Kulongoski that liberals within the party strongly urged former governor John Kitzhaber (a political Hamlet if ever there was one) to jump in, but after much mulling he backed out -- leaving Democratic opponents of the governor without a first-tier challenger. Hill ultimately made it a race, but was handicapped by a late start and a fundraising disadvantage.
On the Republican side, Saxton used his fundraising strength and a strong emphasis on his conservative credentials to best Mannix. Saxton was seen by many neutral observers as the more electable of the two Republicans in November due to his base in Democratic-friendly Portland and his image as the more moderate candidate. By running to the ideological right in the primary, however, Saxton will now need to move back to the middle if he hopes to seriously challenge Kulongoski.
The "X" factor in the contest is Westlund who, according to local press reports, is gaining momentum with a candidacy aimed at building a coalition of Democrats still unhappy with Kulongoski and moderate Republicans who don't feel as though the party nominee reflects their governing philosophy. Although Westlund is a former Republican, many of his stances (he favors abortion rights and is pushing for a sales tax to help fund public schools) could attract voters who might side with the governor in a two-way race.
Westlund must first qualify for the ballot, however, by gathering about 18,000 signatures from Oregonians who didn't vote in either of Tuesday's primaries.
Given the last two seriously contested statewide elections in Oregon, Westlund could have a major impact even if he receives only 5 to 10 percent of the final vote. Kulongoski beat Mannix 49 percent to 46 percent in 2002 (a Libertarian candidate took another 5 percent) and in 2004 Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry defeated President Bush in Oregon by a similarly narrow 51 percent to 47 percent margin.
Make sure to check this space Friday morning to see whether the results of Tuesday's primary in Oregon earn the state a place on the latest gubernatorial Line. (For the last Friday Governors Line, click here.)
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