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The Twists And Turns Of The Oregon Governor's Race

Incumbent Democrat John Kitzhaber (L) has built a sizeable fundraising lead over his likely Republican challenger Dennis Richardson.
Campaign photos
Incumbent Democrat John Kitzhaber (L) has built a sizeable fundraising lead over his likely Republican challenger Dennis Richardson.

The race for Oregon governor was supposed to be predictable. An incumbent Democrat is running in a state that hasn't elected a Republican as governor since 1982.

Incumbent Democrat John Kitzhaber and Republican challenger Dennis Richardson held their second debate Friday in Sunriver.
Credit Campaign photos
Campaign photos
Governor John Kitzhaber (left) and Republican challenger Dennis RIchardson.

But this campaign didn't follow the script.

Actually, it did at first. Incumbent governor John Kitzhaber and Republican challenger Dennis Richardson easily won their primaries in May. For the next few months the challenger needled the incumbent and the incumbent defended his record. Just like you would expect in a governor's race.

And then Cylvia Hayes, the governor's long-time partner and Oregon first lady announced that she married a person so that he could retain residency in the United States. Her fraudulent green card marriage was uncovered by the Willamette Week newspaper less than a month before the election.

The instant Hayes fessed up, the Oregon governor's race became national news.

Hayes said Kitzhaber knew nothing of the 1997 marriage, which took place long before she met the governor. But everyone wanted to hear what Kitzhaber had to say about the revelation. He was asked about it during a debate the very next day.

"This is now a very personal issue,” Kitzhaber said. “And we just need some time to work through this together."

Soon after that, the first lady found herself once again on the defense. Reports linked her to a failed attempt at developing an illegal marijuana farm in a remote corner of Washington state in the late ‘90s.

But to Republican candidate Dennis Richardson, the scandalous nature of both the green card marriage and the pot farm paled in comparison to something else entirely: Accusations that Governor Kitzhaber looked the other way while Hayes used her title to secure lucrative consulting contracts.

Richardson drove home that point during the last debate of the campaign.

"He thinks it's okay for his first lady and senior advisor to triple her income in one year, receiving payments from companies that wanted access to her government connections,” the Republican said. “Governor, that's not okay. That's corruption."

Naturally, Kitzhaber disagrees. He's asked the state's Ethics Commission to clarify what role the first lady can play in his administration should he be re-elected. Richardson is calling for a federal investigation of the governor and his fiancée.

Polls released in the final weeks of the campaign indicate a bit of tightening in the race. But it's not clear whether Richardson will gain enough of a bump from Kitzhaber's recent troubles to overcome the nearly three-decade winning streak of Democrats seeking the state's top office.

Copyright 2014 Northwest News Network

Chris Lehman
Chris Lehman graduated from Temple University with a journalism degree in 1997. He landed his first job less than a month later, producing arts stories for Red River Public Radio in Shreveport, Louisiana. Three years later he headed north to DeKalb, Illinois, where he worked as a reporter and announcer for NPR–affiliate WNIJ–FM. In 2006 he headed west to become the Salem Correspondent for the Northwest News Network.