The Most Interesting Governor’s Race in the Country This Year?

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Welcome to Oregon sign on U.S. 199, Oregon, California border. (Image: Akampfer, CC)

Tina Kotek is trying to make political history – again.

If elected in November, she will become America’s first lesbian governor, this, after becoming the nation’s first lesbian speaker of a state House of Representatives in 2013, a job she held longer than anyone in Oregon history.

Tina Kotek (Image: Ellis Conklin)

The 55-year-old Kotek also seeks to keep one of the country’s longest streaks alive by electing a Democrat to a state’s highest office. Not since incumbent Gov. Victor Atiyeh crushed Ted Kulongoski in a landslide 40 years ago has the Republican Party won the governorship in Oregon. That’s 10 gubernatorial elections ago. 

Utah is tied with the Beaver State, having also chosen a governor from the same party – albeit the GOP – since 1982. (Washington State has had a Democratic governor since Booth Gardner was elected in 1984, a streak of 9 straight gubernational election wins.) Political trivia fans will note that Georgia owns the longest gubernatorial winning streak in U.S. history, where Democrats won an astonishing 52 consecutive elections between 1871 and 1998.

In an interview last week at a picnic table in northeast Portland’s Columbia Park, a 20-minute walk from the home she shares with her wife Aimee Kotek Wilson, Kotek said, “I am running because I want things to work in Oregon.”

A public advocate for the Oregon Food Bank before being elected to the state House, Kotek went on: “Housing and homelessness are by far the biggest concerns Oregonians have,” and will likely be the driving force – particularly finding solutions to building affordable housing, as well as workforce housing in the heavy tourist-driven areas of the state – when the campaigns move into high gear after Labor Day. “None of us are outsiders. We’ve all worked for a longtime in Oregon politics, but the question is, ‘Who has style and the persistence to get things done?”

Kotek, who maintains on her campaign website that Oregon needs to build 36,000 housing units each year for the next 10 years to meet demand, is whip-smart and gets high praise for her legislative know-how. Under her leadership, for example, Democrats were able to pass a school funding increase they had been looking to do for 30 years.

“I’m a Libra,” she said, flashing a broad smile. “I believe in balance. I’ll tell you: it is going to be a very good election. Voters will have a real choice.”

Born and raised in York, Pennsylvania, Kotek, who is Roman Catholic, headed west in 1987, attending the University of Oregon, where she earned her degree in religious studies. She received a master’s degree at the University of Washington in comparative religion and international studies.

Asked how being a lesbian might influence her governing inclinations if elected, Kotek said, “I know what it feels like to be left out, and I want to send a message to our young people that you can do anything. I want every child in this state to feel like they can celebrate their authentic selves.”

. . .

Kotek realizes that Portland and her deep ties to the embattled city will be on the ballot. Recent polling for Oregon Public Broadcasting says less than 20 percent of voters think the state is headed in the right direction. And in Portland, Kotek’s home city, a meager 8 percent of the voters are happy with the current state of affairs.

Having left office in April to concentrate fulltime on the governor’s race, Kotek knows she’ll face stiff headwinds in her quest to replace term-limited Kate Brown, rated the most unpopular governor in the country, according to a recent poll.

In addition to a challenging national environment, Kotek is confronted by many voters, mainly in rural areas, who pillory her Portland home base as a mismanaged eyesore. Worsening matters is independent Betsy Johnson’s credible candidacy, which has opened up a lane for Republican Christine Drazan to break the Democrat’s long hold on the governor’s office.

In fact, a poll of 516 likely Oregon voters conducted at the end of May by Nelson Research, a Salem-based research firm, showed Drazan in a virtual tie with Kotek – almost 30 percent for Drazan to nearly 28 percent for Kotek – with the unaffiliated Johnson drawing more than 19 percent support. Almost a quarter of Oregon voters remain undecided. The poll’s margin of error is 4.3 percent. 

On April 1, six weeks before Oregon’s primary election, Politico called the race as “Likely Democratic.” On May 23, the political online news site downgraded the contest to “Leans Democratic.”

“It’s the most interesting governor’s race in the country this year. You have three women representing the full ideological spectrum – Kotek, the progressive, Johnson, playing the middle, and Drazan, the conservative,” observed Marc Johnson, who, from his home on the north Oregon coast, writes an influential political and history blog entitled “Many Things Considered.”

“Tina needs to be concerned about being labeled Kate Brown 2.0,” Johnson added. “Betsy’s problem is that she’s held elected office [since winning a seat in the state House in 2000], and until six months ago, was a Democrat. And Drazan’s biggest problem is that if she comes off as too moderate, it will offend the Trumpian wing of the party.”

. . .

Betsy Johnson (Image: Oregon Department of Transportation -, CC BY 2.0)

Betsy Johnson has another problem, too – her hardline stance on guns. Unlike many of her former Democratic colleagues in the House and Senate, she has opposed most gun control measures in Oregon. In 2018, she received an A rating from the NRA.

During an unannounced TEDxPortland interview with Johnson at the Moda Center on May 28 – four days after 18-year-old Salvador Ramos used an AR-15 rifle to kill 19 students and 2 teachers at an Uvalde, Texas elementary school — the so-called political maverick, as she likes to call herself, was heartily booed when she blamed the onslaught of mass shootings on a “shitty mental health care system.”

At one point, Johnson said, “People in this country are going to have guns. The style of the gun doesn’t dictate the lethality.”

“I was shocked when I heard this,” countered Kotek. “I mean, four days after Uvalde. It really is the style of the gun … The vast majority of Oregonians believe in common sense gun control.”

The Betsy Johnson campaign declined to make her available to comment for this story.

“One of her big lines is, ‘I believe in a woman’s right to choose and a right to bear arms,” said Steve Forrester, a longtime political observer and publisher of the Daily Astorian in Astoria, Oregon. “Betsy once bought a machine gun at an auction. I was in the Marine Corps in Vietnam, and I wondered, ‘Why in the hell would you want one of these things?’”

Still, Forrester said he will likely support Johnson’s gubernatorial bid, as he sees her as the kind of “CEO Oregon needs right now.”

. . .

John Horvick, a well-regarded Oregon pollster, said the November outcome will be close. After all, explained Horvick, Democrats since 2002 have captured the governor’s office by an average of only 5 percent and, in the past 20 years, have never surpassed more than 51 percent of the total vote in the general election. In 2010, the GOP’s Chris Dudley lost to Democrat John Kitzhaber by a mere 1.5 percent. 

Said Horvick: “It would seem that Betsy Johnson will appeal more to Democrats, since she was a Democrat while in the Legislature, but she’s running by playing up the urban/rural divide and her positions on climate change and guns are going to hurt her with Democratic voters.”

In a page-one story June 2 in the North Coast Citizen in Oregon’s Tillamook County, Johnson told a reporter, “We have an urban/rural divide. I know because I have represented rural Oregon for many years. I think most Oregonians are feeling disrespected, not heard and totally misunderstood.”

Johnson was born in Bend and grew up in Redmond, Oregon, but has lived more than two decades in the Columbia County city of Scappoose (pop. 6,592), 22 miles southeast of Vancouver, Washington, and until 2009 (when it moved to India), the home of Steinfeld’s Sauerkraut Factory.

“I worry about both of them (Johnson and Drazan),” said Kotek. “When it comes to climate change and guns, I have big differences. The number one job of being governor is to keep Oregonians safe.”

The Oregon electorate, Horvick added, breaks down this way: 35 percent of Oregon voters are registered Democrats; 25 percent are registered Republican; and almost all of the remaining 40 percent are independent or unaffiliated.

And, like Washington, where one can almost see all of its Democratic voters from atop the Space Needle – at least, so was the joke during Maria Cantwell’s razor-close victory over Sen. Slade Gorton in 2000 – Portland and Multnomah County (which Kotek won handily with 65.9 percent of the primary election vote) have a long commanded an inordinate amount of political influence in Oregon. Then again, there are no blue states, just blue cities

In handicapping the contest, pollster Horvick said Kotek is associated with the status quo, but held the Democratic base, garnering almost 58 percent of the Democratic vote in the primary over state Treasurer Tobias Read’s 32.4 percent, as of June 8.

Drazan, meanwhile, collected just 23 percent of the GOP vote, though in an extremely crowded field. “She had fewer votes than any GOP candidate for governor (in a primary election) since the 1950s,” said Horvick.

As for Betsy Johnson, who, soon after graduating with a history degree from Carleton College, started a helicopter company in Oregon that she ran for 20 years, Horvick mused, “Look at the website and you’ll find nothing from her on issues. She’s just the feisty lady on TV who is playing to the frustrated.”

. . .

Christine Drazan is a former House minority leader and lives in Canby, Oregon, in Clackamas County, a bellwether county southeast of Portland. It’s the third most populated county in the state, and Democrats haven’t won a governor’s race there since 2002, said Horvick.

“She’s no RINO: Drazan is pro-life and opposed climate legislation. She also returned a level of savvy and fundraising skills to House Republicans,” wrote Willamette Week on April 27, when it endorsed Kotek and Drazan for their respective party nominations.

And she knows how to exercise power. As the weekly paper wrote: “Last year, she even forced then-House Speaker Tina Kotek to give the GOP equal say (for a while) in redistricting.

“Drazan faces criticism from the right for failing to obstruct every piece of legislation unpopular with conservatives that came before the House. Firearms activists, for instance, blame her for letting Democrats pass an innocuous gun safety bill last year.

“They wanted her to order her caucus to deny Democrats a quorum and are now blasting her for that. Drazan stuck around, perhaps because she knows walkouts are unpopular with the electorate.”

Long story short, the far-right nuts are wary of her. But don’t look for Drazan to get on the phone anytime soon with Donald Trump and beg for his endorsement.

. . .

The race for governor of Oregon could well be the most expensive one in the state’s history. Betsy Johnson has already raised close to $9 million and has proven she can get big checks from major Republican donors, including Nike co-founder Phil Knight. She has about $5 million on hand, as she spent profusely before the May 17 primary to build name recognition. Drazan spent $2.7 million during the primary while Kotek spent $2.5 million.

Said political blogger Marc Johnson: “I don’t see that any of the candidates are talking substance. Not yet. They are still introducing themselves because, really, none of them are well-known to most Oregonians.”

On the endorsement front, Kotek scored a nice coup by getting the backing of Nick Kristof, the man from Yamhill in the middle of Oregon’s wine country whose brief gubernatorial campaign was largely spent railing against entrenched Oregon Democrats like Tina Kotek. He endorsed her two days after she won her party’s nomination.

Those who remember past statements from Kristof were taken aback. Earlier this year, the well-known former New York Times columnist was considered a leading candidate for the Democratic nomination, but was forced out for failing to meet the state’s three-year residency requirement for governor.

Still, even after Kristof was disqualified from running, his household showed an anti-Kotek bent. Kristof’s wife, the author and business executive Sheryl WuDunn, endorsed Oregon’s state Treasurer Tobias Read in the Democratic race.

Betsy Johnson, meanwhile, is ringing up endorsements from the old guard, Oregon’s political establishment. Two high-profile endorsements came shortly after the primary when former Republican U.S. Senator Gordon Smith and former Democratic Governor Ted Kulongoski announced their support in a joint statement.

Ahead of the primary, Kotek and Drazan each secured endorsements from a large number of current and former lawmakers as well as county and local officials.

It is anyone’s guess as to who will win in November.

As Marc Johnson put it: “It’s a real crapshoot.”

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Ellis Conklin spent decades as newspaper man, mainly in Los Angeles, Seattle and St. Louis, having worked at the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, United Press International as a national feature writer, and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. At long last, he and his wife settled in Manzanita, Oregon. Here, Ellis continues to root for his beloved San Francisco Giants.

5 COMMENTS

  1. Great story, Ellis. You sure cover a lot of ground covering a fascinating “crapshoot” and keeping it real and keeping it fun. Thanks, too, for all of the gubernatorial stats and for including Washington state and the Space Needle. Go Albert D. Rosellini!

  2. Interesting piece. Johnson is the wild card in this race. Kotek has major vulnerabilities because of the mess that Portland has become. She may pull it out, but she’s a weak nominee and I’m skeptical in year like this one that she’ll be able to build much momentum. I could see Johnson winning outright, or perhaps she’ll end up playing the spoiler, peeling off enough moderate votes from Kotek to throw the race to Drazan.

    • I’m not an Oregon voter, but if I was, I’d be for Johnson all the way. I’d guess there is a large percentage of voters who might want the chance to send a “no confidence” vote to both parties.

      The bonus here is Johnson is a 3rd party candidate who could actually run Oregon’s government quite well. Most 3rd party candidates aren’t really ready for prime time.

  3. Two issues are the Democrat’s undoing: Inflation and crime. True for Oregon, Washington and nationally. Both up ballot and down ballot.

  4. Well, I am an Oregon voter living in a semi-blue central Oregon town, where hundreds turned out for a March for Our Lives event. I came from Seattle and completely understand the inclination of Johnson to run “against Portland” and certainly the GOP will do that…but here in moderate semi-blue Central Oregon I want to say don’t rule out the pissed off women once SCOTUS rules and don’t rule out the pissed off mothers after Ulvade. I think Johnson’s cavalier attitude about gun safety may be a problem for her, and her jokey-folksy thing she has may also be a problem as we swing into autumn and face real political nightmares (read violence against politicians who are not MAGA enough or liberals). Not a fan of Kotek, but she seems adept at understanding the current frustrations with so-called mis-management in cities like Portland, Seattle, SF, LA, and producing ideas that could be solutions.

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