Hoping for, but not expecting, a close race for governor

By Jayson Jacoby May 28, 2010 10:16 am

I’d like to believe that Chris Dudley can help to etch a couple more wrinkles on John Kitzhaber’s rugged face before Nov. 2.

It’s not that I’m rooting for Dudley.

I am in fact registered as an independent. My vote likely will remain in play until the cottonwoods have started to tinge yellow.

And anyway blowouts, whether in football or gubernatorial races, bore me.

Yet as much as I pine for a healthy tussle, I just can’t silence the interior voice which insists that Dudley, who couldn’t poll a majority from among his own party in the primary, has little chance to pull the monumental upset over Kitzhaber.

Maybe I could believe otherwise if the Democrats had gone for Bill Bradbury.

Or for anybody, come to that, except the denim-clad doctor who has a deft touch with a fly rod and who leaps to the aid of seizure-suffering debate watchers.

(Neither Karl Rove nor Rahm Emanuel has ever arranged a scene so serendipitous as the one that played out during a Kitzhaber-Bradbury debate in Eugene last month. Although I remain skeptical that somebody actually hollered, verbatim, “Is there a doctor in the house?” after a man in the audience fell ill.)


And perhaps I could envision a real battle this autumn if only Dudley had a smidgen more of Allen Alley’s policy acumen, or a dash of Ron Saxton’s bluntness.

Even a dollop of Bill Sizemore’s audacity might gain Dudley a couple of percentage points come fall.

It’s a whole lot easier, of course, for a victorious Republican candidate to conjure rosy scenarios during the innocence and optimism of the post-primary afterglow than it is to maintain hope when the grim polls of October come out.

The cold reality is that this is still Oregon.

Not Kentucky.

Not Pennsylvania.

We’ve made quite the habit here of handing Democrats the key to Mahonia Hall, a proclivity which belies the storms roiling the political atmosphere elsewhere. And I don’t see how our predilection is likely to wilt enough between Memorial Day and Halloween to reverse a generation of donkey dominance.

Which is not to say that Dudley doesn’t have time enough to tweak his game.

He is not a weak candidate, certainly.

Dudley has charisma.

He can deliver his lines coherently and with a minimum of verbal clumsiness.

And although I’ve not met the man, he seems to me to have about him a mixture of personability and youthfulness that ought to resonate with people whose votes an Oregon Republican can’t take for granted.

Which is a lot of them.

I wish, though, that the chief exhibit vouching for Dudley’s status as a political outsider weren’t Dudley’s incessant claims that he’s a political outsider.

He sure doesn’t sound like one to me.

Whenever I listen to Dudley my initial, and strongest, sensation is not curiosity but familiarity.

I’ve heard every platitude.

“Inside crowd.”

“Protecting the status quo.”

“If you want change.”

I’m suspicious of candidates who tout their outsider credentials but who sound like every career politician I’ve ever heard.

The candidates who interest me are the ones who, after I’ve watched them on TV, my first question is: “Why is this person running for office?”

Or this: “Did she really say that?”

I know almost nothing about politics, though, and less still about running a campaign.

Dudley and his advisers have a reason for their approach, and I’m sure it’s one that’s proved itself in past contests.

Yet it seems to me that Dudley would be more likely to entice those coveted undecided voters if he replaced the predictable political pablum he dishes out for the TV cameras and the town hall audiences with some of the nutritious items in his “Jobs First” economic plan.

 There’s actual substance in there, too, except you have to poke around in his Web site to get a fork in it.

Dudley, for instance, vows that he would toss 3 percent of forecast tax revenue into the state’s rainy day fund, the money “only accessible for schools and essential programs in times of severe economic downturn.”

I’m sure Dudley has touted this idea in public, but I don’t believe he has repeated it often enough so that voters subconsciously associate the pledge with the candidate.

Which would be to his advantage, I think.

Remember Ross Perot and his pie charts in 1992?

Sure we laughed at Dana Carvey’s spot-on imitation on “Saturday Night Live.”

But Perot pulled in 20 million votes.

Dudley also advocates for dismantling the Oregon Liquor Control Commission.

And he’s pro-tax-kicker.

Both stances are standard fare for Republicans, of course.

But I think it would behoove Dudley to emphasize in particular his position on the kicker — and connect that with his 3 percent rainy day proposal, the latter of which ought to salve, at least partially, those prickly voters who covet kicker refunds for some pet project.

Dudley’s top ally, though, might turn out to be his opponents.

The Democratic Party of Oregon, before the Secretary of State had even validated the primary results, had branded Dudley as “Dudley Do Little.”

A predictable jab, perhaps.

I wonder, though, whether predictable is a savvy strategy in a year in which the electorate, like an elk herd which catches a whiff of men and guns on the wind, seems able to detect even the slightest scent of the stale political ploy.

Emphasizing a candidate’s lack of political experience, despite its ubiquity in the arsenals of campaign quartermasters, might well ricochet in 2010, and in a direction dangerous to incumbents (or former incumbent, in Kitzhaber’s case.)

Or, to couch the situation in simplistic, but potentially persuasive, terms:

Do you vote for the guy who helped get us into this mess, or for the guy who’s standing next to the patch of quicksand, a rope wrapped round his waist?

Dudley’s challenge is to convince Oregonians that their state, although it’s suffering, doesn’t need CPR and is not in danger, metaphorically speaking, of swallowing its tongue.

He just needs to learn to bite his own when it sticks in a toneless groove, like a scratched and warped old LP.

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.