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In Oregon, the fight for governor is about winning over disaffected voters

Oregon Treasurer Tobias Read participates in a debate with former state House Speaker Tina Kotek on Friday, March 18, 2022, in Portland, Ore. They are two of the top candidates for the Democratic Party's nomination in the upcoming Oregon governor's race.

Republicans in Oregon sense a rare opportunity in 2022: With a term-limited Democratic governor and a viable independent candidate potentially shaving away Democratic votes in November, they believe they could be primed to win the executive mansion for the first time in 40 years.

The question for the Tuesday primary is which candidate in a crowded field will Republican voters opt for as their best bet. Among 19 candidates for the office are a Trumpist small-town mayor, the previous Republican leader in the state House and a business executive who served in the legislature decades ago.

Democrats, meanwhile, are largely choosing between two seasoned politicians as they seek to maintain a long string of victories in the Beaver State.

Former House Speaker Tina Kotek, of Portland, has played a powerful role in state governance for the last decade. She's attempting to become the first openly lesbian governor in the country.

Kotek's chief rival for the job is state Treasurer Tobias Read, himself a former lawmaker, who has sought to sell himself as an "outsider" candidate who can steer the state in a new direction.

Oregon's primaries this year are set against a stark backdrop, where polls show rising homelessness, gun violence and other issues have voters feeling extremely pessimistic about where the state is headed. That's particularly true in Portland, Oregon's central Democratic stronghold, where one recent poll found just 8% of voters feel the city is headed in the right direction.

Republicans are hoping to capitalize on that disaffection.

The Republicans

Arguably at the front of the GOP field is former state Rep. Christine Drazan, who made a name for herself as the House Republican leader by directing her members to leave the state in order to block climate change legislation in 2020. Polling suggests Drazan is in a tight race with Bob Tiernan, a businessman who served as a state lawmaker in the '90s, but has roared back from political hibernation with the help of more than $700,000 of his own money, big checks from business allies and a relentless tough-on-crime message.

Also running is Bud Pierce, an oncologist who served as the party's gubernatorial nominee in 2016; Stan Pulliam, the mayor of Sandy, Ore., who more than any other candidate has embraced the style and rhetoric of former President Donald Trump; Baker City Mayor Kerry McQuisten; and Marc Thielman, a former small-town schools superintendent.

Republican candidates have spent most of their campaigns railing against the leadership of Democratic Gov. Kate Brown – who polls have suggested is the least popular governor in the nation – on issues like Oregon's strict COVID-19 restrictions, homelessness and crime.

The Democrats

The two central Democrats, meanwhile, have brought different strategies to the race. Read, the state treasurer, has adopted some of the Republican rhetoric, hitting powerful Democrats, including Kotek, for mismanaging state policies. He has struggled to attract institutional endorsements but does have support from two former Democratic governors, Barbara Roberts and John Kitzhaber.

In a recent ad, Read accuses Kotek of "overseeing a homeless crisis, surging crime and struggling schools." The ad calls Read "the only Democrat calling for a new direction."

Kotek has been more positive, touting her accomplishments as the longest-tenured House speaker in Oregon history. In nine years in that role, she helped pass bills protecting abortion rights, cutting back on carbon emissions, enacting gun controls and raising the minimum wage, among other things.

"What I'm selling to people is a track record of listening to people, understanding the problems, defining solutions and actually getting the solutions passed," she said in an interview.

Kotek has leveraged her record into support from many of the labor and advocacy groups that routinely propel Oregon Democrats to victory. The question is whether that will be enough, or if her link to the status quo will prompt Democratic primary voters to pass her over.

The Democratic field saw a major shakeup in February when former New York Times columnist Nick Kristof was deemed ineligible to run because he did not meet the state's three-year residency requirement. In the course of his short campaign, Kristof attracted high-dollar donations from people like Angelina Jolie, Larry Summers and Melinda Gates.

The independent attracting big money

Waiting to challenge the winners of the partisan primaries is Betsy Johnson, a former longtime Democratic state senator who left the party last year to mount a gubernatorial run unaffiliated with either party. Because of her independent status, Johnson is not on the ballot Tuesday. Rather, she will attempt to collect roughly 23,750 signatures from voters to land on the November ballot.

Political observers expect her to succeed, and to be a formidable presence. Johnson's long history as a business-friendly Democrat has made her a fundraising juggernaut in a state with no limits on campaign giving.

Johnson has far outraised all other candidates in the field, with donations that include $1.75 million from Nike co-founder Phil Knight. She's reported raising more than $8 million all told, a staggering sum roughly 6 months before Election Day.

Johnson is selling herself to voters as a better alternative to the extremes of both parties.

"Having to choose between another left-wing liberal promising more of the same or a right-wing Trump apologist — is no choice at all," Johnson said in announcing her campaign last year. "Oregonians deserve better than the excesses and nonsense of the extreme left and radical right."

Members of both major parties largely discount the chance that Johnson can win in a deeply partisan environment, but they're at odds about whether she will attract more votes from their party or the other.

Copyright 2022 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.

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