GOP governor contender faces challenging road ahead

GOP governor contender faces challenging road ahead
State Rep. Dennis Richardson, R-Central Point, speaks to a crowd of supporters at a Murphy Plywood plant in Eugene, Ore., on Wednesday, July 24, 2013. Richardson announced Wednesday that he's running for governor of Oregon. (AP Photo/Jonathan J. Cooper)

SALEM, Ore. (AP) — A Republican state representative is getting an early start in his bid to be Oregon's next governor. But if history is a guide, then Dennis Richardson has a challenging road ahead.

No one younger than 27 has lived in Oregon under a Republican governor, and it's been more than a decade since a GOP candidate was elected to statewide office. Even in 2010, the best year in memory for Republicans, the tea-party fueled conservative wave crashed short of Oregon.

"People are ready for a change," Richardson said last week after announcing his run for governor. "They want a plan that they can believe in."

Richardson represents Central Point and is largely unknown outside southern Oregon except to those who follow the Legislature closely.

Among his challenges will be introducing himself to the electorate and convincing Portland-area voters to give a conservative a chance. Democrats have been able to make up for weaknesses in the rural areas of Oregon by running up strong margins in Portland and its suburbs.

All of that will take a lot of money. Chris Dudley, the 2010 Republican nominee, spent more than $10 million in his losing bid, much of it his own money.

"There are always two races. The first race is about the money, and the second race is about the votes," said Greg Leo, a lobbyist and former chief staffer at the Oregon Republican Party. "We'll see what happens on the fundraising, which now starts in earnest."

Richardson also faces a Republican primary. Eastern Oregon rancher Jon Justesen is seeking the GOP nomination, and other Republicans also could jump in.

"I'm announcing now so that other Republican candidates might have the idea that, 'Well, if Richardson's willing to do this, we'll support him rather than getting into a highly contested primary,'" Richardson said. "If one comes, that's the way the system works, I'm happy to work with that, it gives us practice for the general election."

The biggest factor that will determine the course of the governor's race, however, is the decision of the current governor about whether to run. Kitzhaber has said he's still making up his mind about whether to run and will announce his decision in the fall.

After three terms in the governor's office — the first two from 1995 to 2003 — Kitzhaber is a well-known figure in Oregon. He's carved out socially liberal and fiscally moderate positions, sometimes angering the left.

Asked about Richardson at a press conference Thursday, Kitzhaber said the Republican was "a very solid partner" in the 2011 and 2012 legislative sessions, which he called "extraordinarily bipartisan and productive."

"I welcome anyone who wants to seek higher office in this state," Kitzhaber said. "I have not made a decision about my own political future, but I wish Rep. Richardson well."

Richardson, 62, grew up in Los Angeles and flew helicopters for the Army in Vietnam. He settled in Southern Oregon in 1979, was first elected to the Legislature in 2002 and rose to be the co-chairman of the Ways and Means Committee when Republicans shared power with Democrats after the 2010 election.

"By and large, I think he's got a very, very low profile," said Len Bergstein, a lobbyist and former Democratic political consultant. "I haven't see any polls, but I think he doesn't come anywhere near challenging Kitzhaber in public awareness, perception, reputation."