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Walker: Longshot to tough call

Today’s decision by Eugene Senator Vicki Walker not to go after incumbent Governor Ted Kulongoski in the Democratic primary maybe leaves both of them relieved, but still only a short gap to rest.

Kulongoski’s re-elect bid just got a little bit easier. A month ago he was facing the possibility of a very tough primary against former Governor John Kitzhaber, and, failing that, Walker; the talk was of how the whole Democratic party seemed to be in revolt. Times have changed. Kitzhaber opted not to make the run, and while he hasn’t been boosting his sucessor much, he hasn’t criticized him, either. Walker would not have done as well in the primary, but she might have inflicted more damage: Her criticisms about PERS, Neil Goldschmidt and other matters have been more than pugent. Some of them have cut deep, and repeated exposure around the state would have hurt Kulongoski. As it is now, the governor still has a primary challenger (Pete Sorenson of Eugene), but little trouble.

Vicki WalkerWalker, on the other hand, still has a high challenge before her: A tough opponent in her run for Senate re-election. For all that Eugene has the reputation of being a Democratic stronghold, there are plenty of Republicans around, and plenty of votes for moderate Republicans. Exhibit A is her opponent: Jim Torrey, the still-popular former mayor of Eugene (for about a decade), and a moderate Republican.

This has abruptly turned into one of the premier legislative races in the Northwest. (And it is abrupt: She had a Walker for Governor web site up and running for months, and on it she declared she was running for governor.) She has a compelling story, of a mother who became an activist, of an exposer of ugly realities. But just how compelling will it be against Torrey? She could have no stronger general election opponent.

Something of a lightning rod, she has faced strong opponents before. In 2000, when was running for re-election as a state representative, she faced another former mayor of Eugene, Jeff Miller, and she won, 53%-47%. But as that vote (and her only other Senate run, in 2002, when she won with 54.3%) shows, she’s been successful at racking up wins but not big wins.

Jim TorreyTorrey was twice elected mayor of Eugene, and when he decided in 2004 not to run again, the general assumption was that a third term would have easily been his if he’d wanted it. He has been raising money (famously, with some help from one of Kulongoski’s tightest political allies), and he will surely be able to call on a solid organization. (No web site yet, though, oddly.) But he’s out of office now, and comebacks in such circumstances are always problematic.

This will be of the handful of general election races to watch in Oregon this year. Right alongside the gubernatorial general.

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