Gov. John Kitzhaber and Dennis Richardson easily won their respective primaries Tuesday, setting up a fall gubernatorial race in which Cover Oregon figures to be a key issue.
Richardson, a state representative from southern Oregon, was heavily favored to win the Republican primary against five candidates who lacked money and name recognition. Richardson had more than 60 percent of the vote late Tuesday and all his opponents were struggling to reach double-digits.
Kitzhaber went virtually unchallenged in his primary. His only registered rival, a political unknown from Salem, failed to follow through with a campaign.
The governor will seek a fourth term with something of a head start. Democrats enjoy a sizeable advantage in voter registration in Oregon and Republicans haven’t won a statewide race since 2002.
Up until last fall, Kitzhaber was seen as all but unbeatable. After edging former pro basketball player Chris Dudley in the 2010 election, the governor enjoyed strong legislative sessions while avoiding the type of scandal that can sink an incumbent.
But the failed rollout of Cover Oregon, the state’s health insurance exchange, gives Richardson an opportunity in a state that hasn’t elected a Republican governor since Vic Atiyeh in 1982. Federal prosecutors have subpoenaed state records for a grand jury investigation of the health insurance website. The state paid its independent contractor, Oracle Corp., $134 million in federal money to build what turned out to be a glitch-filled site.
“In the history of Oregon, has there ever been a time that a governor and his office and the state were investigated by the FBI and by the GAO,” Richardson said in an interview. “I mean this is more than an embarrassment. This is an indictment against the administration of John Kitzhaber.”
Kitzhaber did not address supporters or do interviews following his basically uncontested win.
Besides the Cover Oregon debacle, Richardson has criticized Kitzhaber’s decision to hire Rudy Crew to oversee the education system. Crew left after one ineffective year. Richardson also faults Kitzhaber for failing to deliver a new Interstate 5 bridge over the Columbia River.
Richardson must overcome a gap in campaign financing and name recognition. He also might the lack the crossover appeal that Dudley enjoyed with some Democrats and independents because he’s more conservative on social issues and never played for the Portland TrailBlazers.