Oregon GOP Has a Lesson for California

John Wildermuth
Journalist and Political Commentator

Republican Chris Dudley, who barely lost the 2010 Oregon governor’s race, is packing up to leave the state – and likely politics – and there’s a lesson here for California’s GOP.

If you want to build a political team, you’ve got to give the folks on your bench something to hope for. Or they won’t stay on the bench for long.

Dudley, a Yale grad and 16-year NBA veteran who now works as a financial advisor, shocked Democrats and Republicans alike when he finished only about 22,000 votes behind Democrat John Kitzhaber, who served as governor from 1995 to 2003. It was the closest any Republican has been to Oregon’s top job since 1982.

The 1.5 percentage point loss had Oregon’s Republicans excited about the 47-year-old Dudley’s future. The political novice had offers to run for Congress, county commission and other spots, with the prospect of a future Senate race or another run for governor in 2014.

But Dudley turned everything down, announcing last weekend that he was moving to the San Diego area, where his wife has an undisclosed business opportunity.

“There are probably as many disappointed Republicans in Oregon as there are relieved Democrats,” one of Dudley’s political advisers told the Portland Oregonian.

But when you’re a financial consultant, you learn to read the numbers and in Oregon, they don’t bode well for a Republican. Democrats outnumber Republicans in registration, 40 percent to 32 percent. They hold both U.S. Senate seats, four of the state’s five congressional seats and all six statewide elected offices.

Stop me if any of this sounds familiar.

Dudley not only out-raised Kitzhaber, $10.4 million to $7.7 million, but as a moderately conservative, business-oriented, socially tolerant candidate, he won 20 of Oregon’s 36 counties. But Portland’s huge Multnomah County is overwhelmingly Democrat, with Republican registration running behind unaffiliated voters (Oregon’s equivalent of decline to state). By pulling huge majorities in state’s largest county, Kitzhaber and other Democrats have an automatic advantage that’s tough for even the most popular Republican to overcome.

Again, there’s that feeling of déjà vu for Californians.

So Dudley could hang around, work the state’s chicken dinner circuit and take a chance that the political climate will improve for Republicans in upcoming years. Or he could look at the GOP’s past performance, factor in future indicators and decide to move on with his life.

Cue the moving van.

Flash forward to California, where Meg Whitman, the 2010 GOP candidate for governor, has resumed her business career as CEO of Hewlett-Packard with nary a look back to the party’s prospects.

Nathan Fletcher, a GOP assemblyman, left the party last month when it became clear that the Republican brand wasn’t going to help him win the San Diego mayor’s race.

Chuck DeVore, an Orange County assemblyman, finished down the track in the 2010 GOP Senate primary and promptly packed up and took off for Texas.

In the November race for U.S. Senate, one of the most visible and important political jobs in the country, California Republicans couldn’t find a name candidate willing to take on Democrat Dianne Feinstein. Instead, the party endorsed Elizabeth Emken, whose chief political claim to fame is finishing fourth of four in the 2010 GOP primary for Democrat Jerry McNerney’s congressional seat.

It wasn’t always this way. Republicans like Pete Wilson and George Deukmejian moved up the political ladder in California over a period of years, challenging and beating big-name Democrats like Jerry Brown and Tom Bradley because they were confident that California’s Republican Party provided them with a strong base, appealing to the wide range of voters needed to win a race for governor or Senate.

But what encouragement is there now for the new Wilsons and Deukmejians? GOP registration is shrinking, the party is focused on an ever-narrowing – and aging — conservative base and seems either unwilling or unable to attract Latino voters who are the fastest growing segment of the electorate.

Decline-to-state voters outnumber Republicans in San Francisco and are less than 2 percentage points behind the GOP in sprawling Los Angeles County. The gap is closing statewide, too.

More important, who’s out there for the GOP’s future? Democrats hold every statewide office, solid majorities in both houses of the Legislature, a congressional majority that’s expected to grow and both U.S. Senate seats.

California’s Republicans have to turn those numbers around in a hurry if they want to stay relevant on the state’s political scene.

Feinstein, Sen. Barbara Boxer and Gov. Jerry Brown aren’t getting any younger, which will mean some important openings coming up at the top of the state’s political ladder. But for now, at least, the high-profile Democrats looking at those future races seriously outnumber the Republicans.

Sure, there’s always the possibility of a political outsider like Ronald Reagan, S.I. Hayakawa, George Murphy or Arnold Schwarzenegger stepping into a race and letting their personal popularity or name ID carry the GOP to victory.

But the more popular and well known a potential candidate, the more options he or she has, both inside and outside politics. If someone is going to run statewide as a Republican, the GOP leadership has to convince him or her that the party ID hasn’t become the kiss of death In California.

John Wildermuth is a longtime writer on California politics.

Comment on this article


Please note, statements and opinions expressed on the Fox&Hounds Blog are solely those of their respective authors and may not represent the views of Fox&Hounds Daily or its employees thereof. Fox&Hounds Daily is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the site's bloggers.