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How rare a contest?

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The contest for Oregon governor in the coming year has been described, often, as the most wide-open in a long time.

A riffle back through Oregon political history shows it’s true. Many campaign cycles for governor feature one or two major figures who seem to dominate the picture, and more often than not you could make a reasonable guess more than a year out who would be elected to the office.

Not so much this year.

It’s not that the field – which still is in its early stages of populating – is likely to consist of obscure or thinly qualified people. Oregon’s treasurer, labor commissioner, and House Speaker may be in the field, along with a former Republican nominee for the office, several experienced local government officials, and even, maybe, a New York Times columnist.

But none have the kind of dominant profile in statewide politics – out in the public – that suggests any of them as an obvious front runner.

If an incumbent governor, or a previous governor, is on the ballot, such a person almost always would have that status. That was the case in 2018, 2016, 2014, 2010 and 2006, and in each of those elections, the incumbent or former governors (Kate Brown, John Kitzhaber, and Ted Kulongoski) who were running won the election. That current-or-former governor situation also applied in many other historically recent years: 1998, 1982, 1970, and 1962.

That still leaves a scattering of elections where the title “governor” wasn’t pre-attached to a contender, but in many of those, top candidates were still strongly positioned. In 2002, for example, Ted Kulongoski was not an incumbent but he had been both an attorney general and a Supreme Court justice and had run for governor as a Democratic nominee once before. He was a well-known political figure in the state, and had been for years.

In 1994 John Kitzhaber had a high profile as state Senate president and was a strong enough political figure to openly and prominently challenge a governor of his own party, Barbara Roberts, in the Democratic primary. That bold move made him an even more formidable-looking figure, and when she ultimately decided not to run, Kitzhaber was positioned automatically as of gubernatorial stature.

The 1990 election may in some ways have been the most up-for-grabs governor’s race in recent decades in Oregon, but it wasn’t wide open because it featured not a multitude of even-matched contenders but just two major figures, Roberts (then secretary of state) and Republican Attorney General David B. Frohnmayer.

In 1986, Neil Goldschmidt had been Portland mayor and national secretary of transportation and was highly known statewide (albeit not favorably everywhere). When Republican Vic Atiyeh ran and won in 1978, he was building off a strong but failed gubernatorial campaign four years earlier when he defeated – in very high profile fashion – former Governor Tom McCall. Beating a former governor in their own primary is one way to build political status.

To reach an Oregon governor’s campaign with only relatively low-profile candidates on the ballot, you have to go back to the 1950s, or maybe 1948 – and even there the term “relative” is important. In 1956 when Democrat Robert Holmes defeated incumbent Republican Elmo Smith, Holmes was an only moderately-known legislator and Smith had just recently ascended to the governorship when his predecessor died in office; neither was really a major figure in the state at the time. In 1948 when James McKay was elected governor, he had been known strictly as a legislator and mayor of Salem, though he became a major figure later as secretary of the interior.

So how does all this compare with what seems to be emerging today?

The top place to get to the governorship in Oregon, in recent decades, has been to start from there or to have been governor before. That won’t apply this time; the three living current or former governors won’t be on the ballot. Nor is anyone with past or current congressional experience likely to appear.

The next best starting point is the first office in line of succession (in that sense, Oregon’s equivalent to lieutenant governor), secretary of state. Roberts, McCall, and Hatfield all held that office when they were elected as governor. But the new secretary of state, Shemia Fagan, has taken herself out of contention for this election.

Goldschmidt was a mayor of Portland, the top public elected executive job in the state and in theory a post that could help propel a political candidate. In theory. In practice, the current Portland mayor, Ted Wheeler, has been enmeshed for several years in the tar pit of Portland politics and is in no position now to launch a gubernatorial campaign.

Historically, state treasurer has sometimes been a decent jumping off point as well; Robert Straub held that post when he was elected governor. But he also had run for governor before, building a strong statewide base that augmented his work in the usually low-headline office. Tobias Read, the current treasurer, seems interested in running and may be a strong contender, but his reach has yet to be put to the test. You could say that question of statewide support would also apply to Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum and House Speaker Tina Kotek.

That question of true reach is the question other significant officeholders also face. Yamhill County Commission Casey Kulla is among the few to directly enter the race so far, but a vault from a local government office directly to governor does seem a long shot. (That would also apply to the half-dozen or so other prospects whose background is in local, rather than state or federal, government.)

If New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof runs as he has expressed interest in doing, and if he does well, he definitely would be breaking a mold. Basketball player Chris Dudley did come close to beating Kitzhaber in 2010, but even closing close (and this isn’t horseshoes) was a highly unusual event.

There is, of course, one other factor: Every election is an opportunity to break a seemingly unbreakable rule of elections. Every presidential election for decades has been won but someone who, by the usual rules of thumb, should have lost instead. Old rules are re-adjusted regularly.

They may be again in the 2022 Oregon race for governor.

(This column originally appeared in the McMinnville, Oregon, News-Register. photo/Jon Roanhaus)
 

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