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Hayes Scandal Could Implode Kitzhaber’s Campaign

Friday, October 10, 2014

 

Gov. John Kitzhaber

If the scandal over Cylvia Hayes, Gov. John Kitzhaber’s fiancee, continues to unfold, even with a locked-in-place electorate like Oregon’s race for governor, political tides could shift, political experts say. 

“Kitzhaber’s going to be in trouble,” said Bob Moore, owner of Moore Information, an opinion research group that conducts political polling. “Here’s somebody that calls herself the first lady of Oregon. It’s like, ‘c’mon, you have to be above reproach.'

"You’re embarrassing the governor, for one thing, and is the governor paying attention?” 

All eyes will be on the Friday's City Club of Portland debate between Kitzhaber and Richardson to see how the governor handles the issue. 

The Willamette Week reported Tuesday that Hayes may have committed ethics violations given her dual roles as a paid political consultant and as a volunteer at the governor’s office. Furthermore, Hayes admitted Thursday that she had an illegal marriage in which she was given $5,000 to help an Ethiopian immigrant gain U.S. citizenship.

Combination of issues 

“I don’t think either one of these stories by themselves could change the race, but the marriage issue gets people to take a second look,” said Len Bergstein, president of Northwest Strategies, Inc. “This combination of issues, if it continues through the weekend, then it has the potential to change the election.” 

Kitzhaber's involvment with the Cover Oregon scandal earlier this year did not seem to hurt his political chances for re-election. Fifty-nine million dollars in state funds was spent on the failed healthcare enrollment website and Kitzhaber's knowledge and managment of the issue was questioned.  

A recent tracking poll by the Huffington Post had 49 percent of voters favoring Kitzhaber, 39.5 percent favoring Richardson, and 10.6 undecided. 

"It's happening at a terrible time," Bergstein said. He believes there are enough undecided voters in Oregon to swing the election in Richardson's favor if the story continues to grab headlines in the coming days.

"Then it's the classic story that doesn't end, and then the other shoe drops."

Voters are looking for a replacement to Kitzhaber, Moore said, adding that whether they’re willing to vote for Kitzhaber's opponent, Republican Dennis Richardson, is another question. 

“They don’t know enough about Richardson,” he said. “His job for the next three-plus weeks is going to be to let people know he’s out there and he’s a credible alternative.” 

Experts say the likeliness that voters would turn on Kitzhaber depends on how much he was involved in Hayes's alleged ethical violations.  

How much did Kitzhaber know? 

“I think the question is how much he knew about it,” said Darrell West, vice president and director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution. “If she was doing this on her own that would insulate him from the bulk of the damage.

"If he knew about it and encouraged it that would be a different situation.”

Both Republicans and Democrats agree that whether this story holds over the weekend will likely dictate what impact it has on the election. 

“The voters are getting used to this out-to-lunch governance,” Moore said. “They’re kind of very cynical and jaded about what they expect in their public official.” 

What Richardson does with this also will dictate the impact, Bergstein said. 

But whether Richardson’s campaign can carry the message is up in the air, he added. 

“Unless the Richardson campaign comes in with resources and strong ways of tying it to the governor, I don’t see it rocking his foundation,” he said. 

Possibility of a pass

West said Kitzhaber might also get a pass because the scandals are solely on Hayes and not the governor himself.  

“I think voters do distinguish candidates from their spouses or family members,” he said. "Voters would be concerned about it if it were the candidate himself, but if it’s a fiancée it is less damaging for the candidate.” 

West also said he doesn’t think the marriage scandal will weigh heavily against the governor. 

“I see that as less of a problem because voters are less likely to penalize someone for behavior long ago as opposed to something that took place in the current time period,” he said. 

All eyes will be on the Portland City Club at noon on Friday at the Sentinel Hotel when Kitzhaber and Richardson face off in their next debate. 

“The problem is not so much about the specific facts, but does this story change the level of trust that people have in John Kitzhaber,” Bergstein said. 

 

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