Almost exactly six months ago, state Senator Ben Westlund, newly-minted independent, promised to shake up Oregon politics by running for governor. He did. He also said he would run only to win, not as a spoiler. This afternoon, he held true to the spirit of that, too.
His dropping out of the race nonetheless comes as a surprise. Six weeks ago, he looked like an uncertain quantity to make the ballot; as of yesterday, he looked like a slam dunk to make it.
And he has had some useful things to say, like this in his announcement today: "We must end once and for all extreme partisanship’s bitter grip on Oregon’s future, because if I have learned one thing in this campaign so far… it is this: Until we as Oregonians are allowed to vote our hope… as opposed to being forced to vote our fear … Oregon will continue to spiral into mediocrity and below at an increasingly faster pace." The catchphrase on his website, "Vote your Hope, not your Fear," is one fht best political bumper stcker phrases of the year. (And we should note that his website, put together in-house, is one of the best of any Northwest campaign this year.)
We visited Westlund's Bend headquarters on Tuesday. It looked a little quiet, but with signs of recent activity - nothing amiss. There were a few impressive indicators, and the one striking hardest was the four-foot-wide shelft of white notebooks which contained copies of all the petition signatures the campaign had gathered around the state - about 50,000 of them. We remarked that those tens of thousands of names could be a hell of a resource in a general election campaign where turnout may be king. Westlund's staff indicated that the point had not escaped them.
Beyond that, Westlund simply presented himself well - impressively, drawing good reviews all over better reviews more consistently than any of the other candidates. He seemed poised to launch ahead into the finals.
All of that said, his political instincts were right. Recent polling has shown him somewhere around the 5% to 10% mark, far back of the major party nominees, Democratic Governor Ted Kulongoski and Republican Ron Saxton. It might have been enough to reshape the race, in some way, but far short of winning. Hence, Westlund's dropout.
Does this, now, reshape the race?
Probably, but only at the margins. Evidence of whether Kulongoski or Saxton was losing votes to Westlund has been mixed for months. The prevailing view seems to be that the governor benefits the most, but the exact difference will be hard to gauge.
It certainly does simplify the race. More on that shortly - and also more thoughts on what may become of the Great Middle.