Westlund to drop out of governor's race
Published August 11th 2006 in Oregon News-Review
SALEM, Ore. (AP) -- State Sen. Ben Westlund, an independent from Central Oregon, dropped out of the gubernatorial race Thursday, potentially shifting momentum toward incumbent Gov. Ted Kulongoski.

Westlund told reporters at a press conference that he didn't want to be a "spoiler" candidate -- in other words, skimming off just enough votes from Kulongoski to give Republican challenger Ron Saxton the victory in what's expected to be one of the nation's most closely fought gubernatorial contests.

"We have rekindled Oregon's political center," Westlund said. "We have shown tens of thousands of Oregonians that they may once again take the helm of their own ship of state."

Westlund said he would not join either of the major parties, but would make a gubernatorial endorsement at a later date.

A cancer survivor, Westlund said his health was good, and not a factor in his decision, which he arrived at several days ago after conversations with family members. He denied getting pressure from the Kulongoski camp to drop out of the race.

A political fixture in Central Oregon, Westlund dropped out of the Republican Party earlier this year, and announced that he'd make a run for the governor's seat.

As an independent, he had to collect 18,368 signatures from voters who had not cast a ballot for partisan races in the May primary election. Early checks of the signatures from his home county of Deschutes suggested that he would make the ballot, and Westlund said Thursday that he was confident that he had enough signatures.

Polls showed Westlund pulling between 5 and 14 percent, but his statewide name recognition remained stubbornly low, even after months on the campaign trail. Though he's a former Republican from a Republican-leaning part of the state, most political observers guessed that Westlund would take votes from the Democratic governor, especially after he staked out left-leaning stands on universal health care, civil unions and land-use planning.

"I don't think that Ben was in the race to get one candidate or the other elected," said Rebekah Kassell, the communications director for Basic Rights Oregon, the state's largest gay rights group, which has endorsed Kulongoski.

"I suspect that they knew that it would be a very difficult race, and that if there was no opportunity to come out on top, as someone who cares about the state, I am sure he would want to make sure that the candidate who best serves the state could get elected," she said.

Kulongoski, in a statement released immediately after Westlund's press conference, said he "appreciated on a personal level that this decision was a difficult one to make. I am confident that Ben made the decision based on how he can best contribute in shaping Oregon's future."

Between the two leading candidates, it was the Kulongoski campaign that seemed more preoccupied with Westlund's candidacy, with the governor taking a shot at him the day after winning the Democratic primary.

Saxton used Westlund's decision to jab at the governor, saying Westlund's candidacy demonstrated that "change is needed in Oregon's leadership."

In a statement, Saxton also said he "appreciated the commitment Ben has shown to educating Oregonians about the need for change, the need for leaders who are willing to work in a bipartisan fashion and the need for a new governor."

Though he is personally wealthy, Westlund, a former bull-semen salesman, had trouble competing for money with Kulongoski and Saxton, both of whom are expected to raise upward of $5 million. In his last statement filed with the Oregon Secretary of State's office, Westlund reported having just under $300,000 on hand.

"You would want to have the funds to mount a credible campaign, and without a party behind you, that is definitely a barrier," said Westlund's campaign manager, Stacey Dycus.

Westlund, who turns 57 in September, has been in the Legislature for a decade. He was elected to the House in 1996 and served four terms, before being appointed to a vacant Senate seat in August 2003. His Senate term ends in January 2009.

Westlund's departure doesn't mean that the Oregon governor's race is free of potential spoiler candidates. Constitution Party candidate Mary Starrett, a strong anti-abortion advocate, could attract some Republican voters, while some Democrats may lean toward Green Party candidate Joe Keating. Libertarian Richard Morley is also in the race.

Mike Riley, a Portland pollster, said Westlund would have had an uphill battle in the gubernatorial race.

"The segment he commands is so narrow, it is tough to build a constituency," Riley said. "Pundits said he drew more from Democrats than Republicans, but I think he drew some of each -- his geographic pull was probably not insignificant."