Opposite Outcomes for Outsiders a Boon for Oregonís Kulongoski

By Jesse Stanchak
Published August 29th 2006 in CQpolitics.com
An incumbent who is struggling in job approval polls — as is Oregon Democratic Gov. Theodore R. Kulongoski — can use a few breaks when bidding for re-election. And Kulongoski appears to have drawn a couple from a pair of outsider challengers, one of whom dropped out of the race and one who now appears to be in to stay.

First, on Aug. 10, state Sen. Ben Westlund left the race because he concluded that he could not win and did not want to be branded as a spoiler candidate.

Though he had been a Republican prior to launching his bid for governor, Westlund holds libertarian views — for example, supporting abortion rights as well as opposing gun control — that had made him a threat to pull votes from both Democratic incumbent Kulongoski and his Republican challenger, former Portland school board member Republican Ron Saxton.

Then last Thursday, Oregon Secretary of State Bill Bradbury, a Democrat, stated that Mary Starrett — the nominee of the conservative Constitution Party and mainly a threat to drain votes from Republican Saxton — should remain on the November ballot.

Bradbury acted in response to a complaint filed by Kelly Clark, a former Republican state lawmaker, alleging that the Constitution Party failed to give adequate notice of its nominating convention and should therefore have its nominees removed from the ballot.

While Bradbury has yet to make a formal ruling in the case, he said in letter to the Oregon Justice Department that the infractions, even if valid, do not warrant disqualification from the ballot and that Starrett should be allowed to run regardless of the case’s outcome.

Though Clark denied filing the complaint on behalf of the Saxton campaign, many state political analysts believe Starrett, a former radio and TV personality, could pull in enough votes to make a Saxton win impossible.

The Constitution Party, which opposes state-funded abortions, supports gun owners’ rights and advocates much stricter state budget controls, could attract some social conservatives who would otherwise have voted for Saxton.

Saxton has had a touch-and-go relationship with religious conservatives. Some viewed him as too moderate when he sought the Republican gubernatorial nomination in 2002 to former state Rep. Kevin Mannix, who campaigned on his conservative social-issues agenda.

In this year’s primary, though, Saxton made a much more open appeal to socially conservative voters and defeated Mannix and state Sen. Jason Atkinson, who holds similar views on these issues. After the primary, Mannix endorsed Saxton and has campaigned on his behalf.

There is precedence for Oregon conservative activists rejecting political pragmatism to the detriment of more centrist Republican nominees. In 1990, abortion foe Al Mobley pulled in 13 percent as an independent, greatly hindering Republican nominee Dave Frohnmayer in the race he lost to Democrat Barbara Roberts.

While Starrett isn’t expected to garner numbers on the order of Mobley, she could well make a tough contest even more difficult for Saxton.

“I think 13 percent was a high water mark,” said Oregon State University political science professor Bill Lunch. “I think we’re more likely to see 5-to-6 or 7-to-8 percent from Starrett. Even so, those numbers come right out of Saxton’s hide.”

Meanwhile, polls suggest Westlund’s dropout is a boost for the governor. A survey by Zogby Interactive in July showed Kulongoski leading Saxton 40 percent to 38 percent, a statistical dead heat, with the still-active Westlund drawing 10 percent. Without Westlund in the race, the poll found 49 percent of voters favored Kulongoski, compared to 42 percent backing Saxton.

In a statement on his Web site discussing his withdrawal, Westlund said, “I made a commitment to the people of Oregon . . . I was in it to win it . . . and that I absolutely would not play a spoiler role. Therefore, today, with no regrets (but some sadness), I am here to honor that commitment.”

Amid the ballot upheaval, Rasmussen Reports released a poll of 500 likely voters Aug. 22 showing Kulongoski leading Saxton by the significantly wider margin of 49 percent to 35 percent.

Paul Gronke, an associate professor and chairman of the political science department at Portland’s Reed College, said he believed the state’s new, more stringent ballot requirements for independent candidates may have crippled Westlund’s run. Beginning this year, signatures on a nominating petition for an independent candidate in Oregon had to come from voters who did not participate in either major party’s primary.

“Westlund had to spend too much on signatures, most of which was on scrubbing the lists for primary voters,” says Gronke.

The development has worked to the incumbent’s advantage, Gronke said. “Westlund dropping out means Kulongoski can solidify the center. Westlund’s campaign made the governor run to the left a bit. . . . He’d put on these fiery, progressive speeches, when his record is actually very moderate. Now that Kulongoski can just play the centrist, Saxton will have to decide if he wants to fight [the governor] for that image or run to the right.”

And although Kulongoski’s approval ratings remain tepid, they have actually improved recently. A Survey USA poll conducted Aug. 14 showed that 44 percent of Oregon respondents approved of the job he is doing while 47 percent disapproved. That had to be encouraging for the governor’s campaign, considering that the numbers were 32 percent approval and 59 percent disapproval as recently as June.
 
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