State Rep. Dennis Richardson has launched a new phase of his political career, taking a shot at the highest elected office in the state. He is a smart, seasoned legislator, but going from a minority-party lawmaker in Southern Oregon to the governor's mansion will be a long journey indeed.
Oregon's electorate is dominated by Democratic voters concentrated in Portland and the Willamette Valley. The last Republican to win the governorship was Victor Atiyeh in 1982.
The number of nonaffiliated voters has grown to the point that neither major party commands a majority of the electorate, but Democrats still outnumber Republicans by more than 187,000 statewide, and have managed to attract enough independent voters to maintain control of all the statewide elected offices.
Richardson, a Central Point Republican, has earned a reputation as a tough-minded fiscal conservative, which will appeal to loyal Republican voters. His stands on guns and social issues also will resonate with conservative Oregonians.
Those views will be a hard sell to the bulk of Oregonians, however.
Portland attorney Ron Saxton, a moderate Republican, was seen as the GOP's best hope in years when he sought the governorship in 2006. But Saxton ran far to the right to defeat conservative Kevin Mannix in the primary, then stayed there as he faced not only incumbent Democrat Ted Kulongoski but also a challenge from a Constitution Party candidate on his right flank. Kulongoski won handily despite a lackluster first term.
Four years later, former Portland Trail Blazer Chris Dudley, running as a moderate, came within fewer than 20,000 votes of defeating John Kitzhaber.
Richardson is many things; moderate is not one of them. He drew fire from critics after the Virginia Tech shootings in 2007 when his email newsletter appeared to equate the shootings with the Legislature's passage of domestic partnership rights for same-sex couples, calling both "tragic."
After the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre last year, he declared that school personnel should be allowed to carry guns in the classroom to protect children.
Richardson is not the first Republican to declare his candidacy for governor, and he is unlikely to be the last. The other declared candidate, an Eastern Oregon rancher and businessman with no elective experience, is to Richardson's left on social issues: he supports a woman's right to an abortion and doesn't oppose gay marriage.
As conservative as Richardson is, one or more candidates to his right still could emerge.
When Dudley lost in 2010, some right-wing Republicans said he was too moderate, and lost votes to third-party conservative candidates.They insisted Dudley could have won if he had appealed to the GOP's conservative base.
Should Richardson win the primary next May, his candidacy likely will put that theory to the test.