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Kitzhaber takes the plunge


John Kitzhaber

John Kitzhaber, governor of Oregon from 1995 to 2003, thought about running for governor in 2006 and the Senate in 2008, but he couldn’t quite pull the trigger on either. (As running for the Senate was an untaken option in 2002, too.) So until he actually announced, there had to be some inevitable weighing of probabilities. It happens when it happens, and not before.

What Kitzhaber announced today was actually somewhat less than a formal announcement; technically, quite a bit less. But it was sufficient as a statement of intentions. As a matter of practice, the Hamlet period is over, and he’s in the race.

As a strategic concern, a key matter is to what extent he clears the field, on both sides of the fence.

You can start on this with the KATU-TV/Survey USA poll just released showing favorable and unfavorables for Kitzhaber, incumbent Ted Kulongoski, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bill Bradbury and Republican Allen Alley. It does not indicate any overwhelming strengths for anyone, and Kitzhaber’s 33%/36% favorable/unfavorable is less than commanding. But it’s better than anyone else’s. And once his visibility starts to rise, odds are it will improve.

State Representative Brian Clem, who has been exploring a run for governor, is likely to drop out by week’s end. Bradbury sounded as if he plans to stay in, but who knows? Kitzhaber is simply going to be a formidable presence in the Democratic primary. It’s hard to see him not winning it strongly.

There’s some talk that former Senator Gordon Smith, defeated for re-election last year, may take a run at this race. A Kitzhaber-Smith contest would be high-profile and a lot of fun to watch. But Smith’s path in a governor’s race doesn’t seem very clear. He emerged from last year’s race not only defeated but also somewhat damaged, his nice-guy persona battered and identified with the distinctly minority party in Oregon. He would have serious recovery work to do if he wants to run for a major office again. The idea of running against Kitzhaber may make it less appealing.

Other prospects, from Alley (who is in the race) to Jason Atkinson (who might be), seem murkier still. Any Republican running statewide in Oregon starts from the double-bind of a need to appeal to the right in the primary and the center in the general, a problem that looks to be getting worse this year instead of better. Will an Atkinson run? Guess here is, maybe, but odds are less than even.

The unexpected happens, from here to November 2010 is a long opportunity for just that. But Kitzhaber enters this with a better than even chance of election next year.

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