Ex-NBA Player Gives GOP Hope in Oregon Race for Governor

Oregon gubernatorial candidate John Kitzhaber, left, listens as fellow candidate Chris Dudley, right, talks at a joint candidate forum Sept. 25 in Eugene, Ore. (AP Photo)

Oregon gubernatorial candidate John Kitzhaber, left, listens as fellow candidate Chris Dudley, right, talks at a joint candidate forum Sept. 25 in Eugene, Ore. (AP Photo)  (BRIAN DAVIES/The Register-Guard)

Oregon hasn't had a Republican governor since 1987. Its legislature is dominated by Democrats and both U.S. senators are Democrats. The state chose Barack Obama for president by double digits. 

But this year's GOP nominee for governor threatens to defy Oregon's history as a Democratic stronghold. In one of the most overlooked campaigns of the season, an ex-NBA star whose most public experience closing the deficit was when the Trail Blazers were down in the fourth quarter is running even with his far-more-seasoned Democratic opponent. 

Meet Chris Dudley. Like many promising Republican outsiders this year, he's running on a jobs agenda. That can't hurt in a state where the unemployment rate is 10.6 percent, among the highest in the nation, and homelessness is rampant. Since leaving the NBA, Dudley has worked at two financial planning firms -- one of which billed itself as a company for corporations and "the ultra-affluent" -- and is now pushing an economic agenda of tax cuts and lower government spending.  

But in an anti-establishment year, Dudley may also benefit from the fact that his opponent, John Kitzhaber, has held the job for eight years. 

David Avella, executive director of Republican recruitment arm GOPAC, said Dudley has the double-benefit of "no experience" and an opponent who has too much of it. 

"In Oregon, you're looking at a situation where it's not just an incumbent trying to say, 'keep me here.' It's a former politician saying 'put me back in there,'" Avella said. 

The candidates have mere days to make their closing arguments, with ballots going out to voters starting Friday in Oregon's unique mail-in election. Republicans are poised for pickups in state capitals across the country, but a win in Oregon would be particularly unsettling for Democrats. 

The latest Rasmussen Reports poll released Sunday showed Kitzhaber leading 48-46 percent. Other recent surveys have shown Dudley slightly ahead. Kitzhaber's candidacy may also be hampered by low approval ratings for the sitting Democratic governor, Ted Kulongoski. 

In the closing days, the candidates are casting their contest as the classic case of change versus experience. 

Kitzhaber has an accomplished history in Oregon's state government. He served as the state's Senate president and helped pass the Oregon Health Plan expanding health care access to low-income families. Following that, he was elected to serve two terms as governor, leaving office in 2003. 

Kitzhaber is not running from that record. Though less is often more when it comes to political experience this year, several out-of-the-woodwork candidates -- like Christine O'Donnell in Delaware's Senate race -- are struggling to convince voters they meet the requirements. Kitzhaber is trying to dunk Dudley in that category. The ex-governor hammered his opponent for peddling old ideas and needing "on-the-job training" at their only debate last month and released an ad that cast Dudley as a disinterested novice. 

"You can hire Chris Dudley -- who's never managed anything, never tried to create jobs to help Oregon's families and never shown much interest in Oregon," the ad said. 

As for the financial experience Dudley does have, Kitzhaber's tried to turn that into a negative. His campaign released an ad ridiculing the "ultra-affluent" mission statement of his former firm, M Financial Group, and accusing him of pushing tax breaks for the wealthy. 

Kitzhaber's not lacking for powerful friends. He's getting help from President Obama next week in one of the few battleground states where the president could be considered an asset - Obama's 2008 rally in Portland drew one of the largest crowds in campaign history. 

The Democratic Governors Association also has money to burn, after it announced it raised a record $10 million in the third quarter. 

But Dudley, who since leaving the NBA became a financial planner, is playing up his outsider status. He's casting Kitzhaber as a stale alternative as he touts out a "20-point" jobs plan that involves cuts to the state's capital gains tax, credits for employers who add workers on public assistance and income-tax sharing with Oregon's cities for revenue from new businesses. 

Dudley tapped the state's last Republican governor, Vic Atiyeh, to cut a radio ad for him in which Atiyeh said Kitzhaber is "desperate to protect the status quo." 

"It's time to finally turn the page on the politics of the past," Atiyeh said. 

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