By Taylor W. Anderson

The Bulletin

SALEM — In a reversal from two months ago, Dennis Richardson, a former Republican state representative who challenged John Kitzhaber for governor in 2014, has dipped his toe into what has become the top statewide race ahead of the 2016 general election.

Richardson, a Central Point conservative who ran for governor largely on his experience coleading the Legislature’s budget-writing committee, said he’s now mulling a run for secretary of state.

The announcement, first reported by The Oregonian, marks a change from this summer, when Richardson told The Bulletin he wouldn’t run if he didn’t think he could win, so he was “not interested in running for any 2016 position at this time.”

If he changes course and announces a bid for the position, which political analysts say will be the most contested statewide race in 2016, it means he believes he can rise above a crop of Democrats that includes a former House majority leader, chief budgeteer and state labor commissioner, as well as a Republican Lane County commissioner.

“I’m hearing from many Oregonians who believe I can win the Secretary of State office, and it’s true that I’m highly disappointed with the failure of the (office) to audit and stop the waste of hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars on Cover Oregon, the Columbia River bridge project, energy tax credits, etc.,” Richardson wrote in an email Sunday.

Richardson has kept a low profile following his defeat last November.

He said he plans to send out a newsletter this week going deeper into the issues he’s followed in recent months. He said he’ll decide “within the next few weeks” whether to run.

Kitzhaber, who would later win election to his unprecedented fourth term as Oregon governor, was plagued late in the campaign by issues that would force his resignation amid a federal investigation.

Kitzhaber was once considered untouchable as a candidate in the 2014 election.

But details about the private environmental consulting work of Kitzhaber’s fiancee, Cylvia Hayes, while she shaped public energy policy, helped Richardson to pick up some steam heading toward Election Day. Richardson lost by 5.7 percentage points.

“As I said last August, I do not take running for statewide office lightly and only would agree to run if I truly believe I can win and help make Oregon state government honest, transparent and ethical, like it was before the blight of one-party rule took over our state,” Richardson said in an email.

If he entered the race, Richardson would face Republican Lane County Commissioner Sid Leiken for a primary challenge. Richardson told The Bulletin he is still a member of the Oregon Republican Party and didn’t join the Independent Party of Oregon.

The Republican nominee will face the winner of what has become a closely contested battle between Democratic juggernauts.

Rep. Val Hoyle, a Eugene Democrat who until last month was House majority leader, is squaring off against Sen. Richard Devlin, D-Tualatin, and Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian.

Avakian has an advantage because of name recognition as a statewide official who also ran in a 2012 congressional race, said Jim Moore, director of the Tom McCall Center for Policy Innovation.

Devlin, who is co-chair of the budget-writing committee, wouldn’t have to give up his seat in the Legislature if his bid was unsuccessful, as Hoyle would.

Democrats debated Sunday during the state Democratic Party’s retreat in Sunriver.

Devlin has focused on the auditing function of the office, a key responsibility for the secretary of state, as well as overseeing elections with county clerks, managing the state’s corporations division and sitting on the State Land Board.

Hoyle talked about the need to engage more voters now that the state has removed a major registration barrier by becoming the first to approve automatic voter registration.

“We have to take the responsibility of engaging all voters,” Hoyle said.

Avakian courted the environmental sect of the Democratic Party, saying, “Oregon needs to be a leader in the clean energy economy.”

Avakian won a straw poll of attendees at the Sunriver retreat with 90 votes. Hoyle was second with 61, and Devlin received 16 votes.

— Reporter: 406-589-4347,