By most any measure, ex-Gov. John Kitzhaber has a wide lead over former Secretary of State Bill Bradbury in Oregon's Democratic gubernatorial primary.

There's the conventional barometer of fundraising: As of Feb. 23, Kitzhaber has raised $175,000 in 2010, three times Bradbury's total, though Bradbury expects to narrow that gap this week. Or you can gauge it by Facebook fans (Kitzhaber's page tops 10,000, Bradbury's more than 3,000) and Twitter followers (Kitzhaber exceeds 1,000, Bradbury counts about 500).

Kitzhaber also released a poll last week of likely Democratic voters that shows him leading Bradbury 55 percent to 21 percent. Even if you take the Bradbury campaign's stance that the poll largely reflects name recognition from Kitzhaber's two gubernatorial terms, all indices point so far to a Kitzhaber win…unless Bradbury could persuade some very powerful public employee unions in the next couple weeks to give him their cash and organization in the May primary. If that happened, Bradbury could make up ground. If not, Kitzhaber would prove unlikely to lose.

Pollster Tim Hibbitts said things could change in what's shaping up as an unpredictable year.

"I completely believe the poll numbers with the stipulation that we're three months from the primary," Hibbitts said of the Kitzhaber survey. "Bill has the capacity to grow [his numbers], and the union endorsements could matter."

Starting March 5, the 47,000-member Oregon Education Association will hold its convention in Eugene to decide whom it's endorsing. Also expected to decide in early March is the Service Employees International Union, which has 45,000 members in Oregon, as well as the American Federation of Teachers and Oregon School Employees Association with their combined 32,000 members.

Bradbury campaign spokesman Jeremy Wright said Tuesday that the public unions' endorsements are "unquestionably important."

He's right In an off-year primary when turnout should be low, the role of those unions, which collectively represent about 125,000 people, in determining the Democratic nominee is huge. Pacific University political science professor Jim Moore says the expected low turnout places a premium on big unions' organizational ability for the candidate they support.

"Turnout is going to be crucial and union endorsements will be crucial," Moore says. "If Bradbury can get a couple of big unions and gets out the environmental vote, he's got a shot."

Working in Bradbury's favor is his history of helping unions in ballot measure campaigns and working for other Democratic candidates, as well as his campaign pledges now to add billions to the K-12 budget. Working against him is what unions consider his lackadaisical effort while secretary of state to tackle initiative reform, and the fact they probably perceive Kitzhaber to be the stronger general election candidate.

Political insiders say the upcoming OEA endorsement is always a wild card because union members make their selection in a very democratic and issues-driven convention.

Unions such as OEA and SEIU proved key in the 2008 Democratic primary for attorney general. They provided about half the money John Kroger raised to defeat Greg Macpherson, who as a state representative in 2003 infuriated unions as the point man for reforms to the state's Public Employee Retirement System.

Some pre-OEA convention buzz has focused on Kitzhaber's answers to the union questionnaire that, while he opposes tying teacher salaries to student performance, he favors basing school funding on performance rather than enrollment. That's a red flag for many teachers, as is the fact Kitzhaber's son attends private school.

Kitzhaber has won support from private-sector unions such as the Oregon State Building and Construction Trades Council, United Food and Commercial Workers and International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. But it's the public-employee unions that are the big prize.

Kitzhaber said Tuesday he thinks there are a lot of teachers who are open to considering his funding proposal. "We'll just have to wait and find out," he said when asked if this proposal could cost him OEA support.

The fact that public unions have not yet decided indicates Bradbury is in play, says one insider.

"If it was a done deal," says a consultant, "it would have already been done."


In the Democrats' 2008 U.S. Senate primary, insurgent Steve Novick won the endorsement over then-state House Speaker Jeff Merkley, though Merkley still narrowly won the nomination after the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee jumped in for him.