Reporting from Corvallis, Ore. — In a state knocked on its hindquarters by the recession, some say it will take a big man to pull Oregon back up on its feet. At 6 feet 11, Republican Chris Dudley would like to be that man.
"It's pretty safe to say I've got a good shot at it," said Dudley, for whom good shots were a rarity in a 16-year NBA career distinguished by one of the worst free-throw shooting percentages in league history.
The degree to which the governor's race is a tossup this late in the campaign says much about how hard-hit the state has been by double-digit unemployment and back-to-back fiscal crises — and how ready voters may be to try something new.
Oregon has not elected a Republican governor since 1982. Democrats hold the state's two U.S. Senate seats and control the state Legislature. Yet in some polls, Dudley has pulled slightly ahead of former Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber, who left office in 2003 after eight years and is now, like Jerry Brown in California, trying for a comeback.
A state that boomed during Kitzhaber's administration has been hit harder than most by the economic downturn, with more than 200,000 Oregonians out of work, one of the nation's worst rates of homelessness and poorly performing schools.
Kitzhaber argues that an experienced hand is needed to turn the state around. But many voters have welcomed Republican calls to rein in spending and give employers a freer hand — especially when delivered with Dudley's brand of affable good looks, smaller-government philosophy and athletic star power.
"I've been saying for years that Oregon is one of the top three bluest states in the nation. But people here still like to work," said Republican political consultant Chuck Adams. "Since last summer we've had the [federal] healthcare plan, the stimulus package, the bailouts. And in Oregon, the unemployment has just continued to go up."
So stretched is the thin blue line in Oregon that President Obama is planning a stop here on his upcoming Western campaign trip — his first visit to the state since the 2008 presidential primary — on Oct. 20 to boost Kitzhaber's campaign.
The Dudley dynamic marks a departure in contemporary Oregon Republican politics, which over the last decade has veered to the right. Dudley, by contrast, has played down issues such as abortion and gay rights, come in moderate on environmental issues and played up his proposal to shave capital gains taxes to promote job creation.
That hearkens back to a tradition of moderate Republicanism that characterized Oregon for decades in the era of Mark Hatfield and Bob Packwood, whose long careers as the state's GOP U.S. senators ended in the mid-1990s, and Tom McCall, who was governor from 1967 to 1975.
"It's arguable that Dudley represents that now largely lapsed tradition of moderate Republicanism that at one time was very powerful in the state's politics," said Bill Lunch, chairman of the political science department at Oregon State University.
Dudley welcomes the comparison — though Democrats point out that the 45-year-old Republican nominee, who became a financial planner after he retired from basketball in 2003, has never been elected to public office or managed any large company.
"These are the public servants who had the greatest impact on Oregon," Dudley said in an interview. "Republicans that have been able to build consensus and bring people together, and I think that's something that's sorely needed in our state."
Kitzhaber, 63, who looks like the quintessential Western governor with his lanky frame, blazer-and-cowboy-boots attire and silvery moustache, was a physician and longtime state legislator before being elected governor in 1994. As state Senate president before that, Kitzhaber helped enact the Oregon Health Plan, which substantially increased the number of low-income citizens receiving medical coverage.
He has been eager to reenter the policy fray during the debate over the state's fiscal crises, which include a projected budget shortfall of $3.2 billion for the 2011-13 biennium.
Kitzhaber points out that as the predecessor to Democrat Ted Kulongoski, he presided over a period of 48% cumulative economic growth and the creation of more than 125,000 private-sector jobs. The dot-com bust at the end of his administration sent unemployment skyrocketing, however, and the state's jobless rate has surpassed the national average for 14 straight years. (Oregon's current rate is 10.6%, compared with 9.6% nationally.)
Kitzhaber has proposed a mini-stimulus program to create jobs by weatherizing schools, paying wages out of the energy savings. He also seeks to break the historic boom-bust cycle that has beset the state by building up businesses such as Nike and Intel that sell outside Oregon and by parlaying the state's reputation for innovation and sustainability into marketable goods and services.