State capitol

It was not exactly a state secret that Gov. Kate Brown was running for re-election, so no one in Oregon was stunned this week when her campaign officially announced her bid for another term. Brown has been fundraising and campaigning since she won election in 2016 for the remaining two years of John Kitzhaber's term. (You may recall that Brown, then secretary of state, ascended to the governor's office after Kitzhaber resigned in February 2015.)

Her announcement sets up what could be an interesting race between Brown and state Rep. Knute Buehler, the Republican from Bend who at this point seems the odds-on favorite to be the GOP nominee. (Brown is unlikely to draw a serious primary opponent, and no one yet has emerged as a major GOP challenger to Buehler. There are a number of reasons for this, but one is that neither party at this point appears to have a deep bench of potential statewide candidates, a topic that we might return to on another day.)

If both Brown and Buehler somehow survive their primary elections, the November 2018 election would be a rematch of the 2012 campaign, when both ran for the secretary of state's office. Brown won that election.

She goes into the 2018 election cycle with the same advantages as she had in the 2016 election, when she defeated political newcomer Bud Pierce. Her biggest advantage, of course, is that she's a Democrat in a heavily blue state. When the 2018 election rolls around, Brown will have the additional advantage of two more years of incumbency. 

It's not impossible, of course, for a Republican to win a statewide office in Oregon: Secretary of State Dennis Richardson did it last November, but he was the first GOP candidate to win a statewide race in nearly two decades. Richardson beat Democrat Brad Avakian in part by painting himself as a more moderate candidate than the Democrat; Richardson also had the advantage of superior name recognition, thanks to his losing campaign against Kitzhaber for governor two years ago.

That's why Buehler's first task will be to improve his name recognition. He also will need to demonstrate that he can raise enough money to stay at least even with Brown, but so far so good for Buehler this far: As of this week, he's raised $1.3 million, bolstered by a $500,000 contribution from Nike founder Phil Knight. 

You can expect Buehler to focus at least part of his campaign on the question of whether Brown has offered effective leadership as governor, and that could become a theme that resonates among some Oregon voters.

The problem with that strategy is that Brown likely could win re-election by campaigning not against Buehler, but against another GOP politician entirely: Donald Trump. Already, you can see signs that Brown is positioning herself as the gubernatorial candidate best positioned to protect Oregon against the Trump administration. That plays well among many Oregon voters, and it could present a triangulation challenge for Buehler — to what extent does he want to separate himself from Trump? You're not likely to see Trump stumping for Buehler.

After all, a statewide GOP candidate can carry perhaps 30 of Oregon's 36 counties, and still lose handily, thanks to the heavily populated Portland metro area. Buehler isn't likely to carry that area, but he needs to attract independent and moderate Democratic voters there, so he'll be working to burnish his moderate credentials to take advantage of whatever dissatisfaction there might be with Brown's performance. 

It still will be an uphill battle for Buehler, and he'll need to run a nearly perfect campaign to pull it off. Despite his inexperience, Pierce appeared to be making progress in his 2016 gubernatorial campaign — but when he stumbled, that was it. It's the hard math facing statewide GOP candidates in Oregon: one strike and you're out. (mm)


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