GOP prospects dim in Ore. governor's race

SALEM — So far the Republicans who’ve stepped up to say they’re running for Oregon governor in 2010 aren’t exactly household names.

There’s Jason Atkinson, a state senator from Central Point; and Allen Alley, co-founder of a company that makes microchips. Another contender is Gresham businessman John Lim, a former legislator who was defeated in his re-election campaign last year.

They’ve all made unsuccessful bids for statewide office before, and none has gained wide name recognition in the process.

That’s all the GOP has, at the moment.

The Democrats however have John Kitzhaber, the popular former governor. Congressman Peter DeFazio is still a possible contender for governor, as is former Oregon Secretary of State Bill Bradbury.

A Republican has not occupied the Oregon governor’s residence since Vic Atiyeh left office in 1987.

So do the Republicans have any chance at all of winning the governor’s race next year?

It’s possible but not likely, most observers say, barring further economic calamity or a free fall in the popularity of President Obama and the Democrats between now and then.

“The environment in Oregon remains far more hospitable to Democrats than to Republicans,” said Dan Lavey, a GOP-leaning Portland political consultant. “For Republicans to win, they are going to need a lot of help from a better political environment.”

Last year, Democrats almost quadrupled their 2004 voter registration edge over Republicans to some 230,000 in the 2008 election cycle, helping Democrats score victories in suburban areas that traditionally had been viewed as Republican-leaning or swing districts.

It’s been part of a downward trend for Republicans in Oregon. The state hasn’t elected a Republican to a statewide office since Gordon Smith won re-election to the U.S. Senate in 2002. Smith was defeated last year, swept out of office by an anti-Republican tide that put Oregon solidly in Obama’s column in the presidential race.

To borrow a sports metaphor, Oregon Republicans don’t have much of a bench these days. Neither of the GOP’s two leading lights — Gordon Smith and Congressman Greg Walden — has shown any inclination to run for governor at this point.

So that leaves Atkinson, Alley and Lim as the GOP gubernatorial contenders, although it’s possible others could jump in before the candidate filing deadline next March.

Atkinson, 38, would be making a second bid for governor, finishing third in the 2006 GOP primary election. Atkinson has solid ties within the base of the Republican Party and picked up a loyal group of backers in his 2006 GOP nomination bid.

He recently marked the one-year anniversary of an accidental shooting that nearly killed the southern Oregon lawmaker and severely damaged his leg.

Atkinson prides himself on being able to work in a collegial way with Democrats on some issues, but said he’s a firm fiscal conservative.

“I’m not going to increase the role of government just because a bunch of special interests have told me to do so,” he said.

Alley, 55, takes a centrist approach, emphasizing his credentials as a businessman and engineer while touting the fact he once worked as a top staff member to Democratic Gov. Ted Kulongoski.

Alley resigned as a deputy chief of staff to Kulongoski to run for state treasurer in 2008. Alley won 45 percent in his loss to Democrat Ben Westlund.

He recently completed a 400-mile, 37-day walk across the state to publicize his quest for the governor’s office, and said he learned a few things along the way.

“People weren’t concerned about whether I was a Republican, Democrat or independent,” Alley said. “They wanted to know if I could change the direction of the state, and if I could get us out from under one of the highest unemployment rates in the country.”

Lim, 73, ran as a long-shot candidate in the 1990 GOP gubernatorial primary, drawing 10 percent of the vote, and it appears to some he’s making another a quixotic bid for governor.

In his years as a lawmaker, Lim often pursued his own unique set of issues. He tried to create a lieutenant governor’s office and angered mountaineers by trying to require climbers to carry electronic locator devices when they head for the summit of Mount Hood.

Lim believes Democrats have controlled the governor’s office and Legislature long enough and it’s time put Republicans back in charge of improving Oregon’s struggling economy.

“There’s no way to blame the Republicans any more,” he said.

Portland pollster Tim Hibbitts said Kitzhaber appears to be the favorite to win the 2010 governor’s race — but that it’s impossible to predict with certainty what the overall political climate will be like a year from now.

“It could be a problem for Kitzhaber if the state still is in the economic doldrums by then,” Hibbitts said. “It isn’t necessarily going to be a slam dunk for Kitzhaber.”

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