PORTLAND, Ore. — The Democratic primary for Oregon governor in Tuesday’s midterm elections will serve as a test between the party’s moderate and progressive wings at a time when voters remain frustrated over the handling of the pandemic, the homelessness crisis, a lack of affordable housing and increasing gun violence.
The two leading candidates are Tina Kotek, a staunch liberal and former speaker of the state House, and Tobias Read, the state treasurer who has positioned himself as a centrist and blamed Kotek for the state’s woes. Current Gov. Kate Brown, a progressive Democrat, cannot run for the position again because of term limits.
Kotek, who led Oregon’s House of Representatives for a record nine years, is considered the front-runner. The Portland-based politician has collected endorsements from a third of Oregon lawmakers, nationally elected leaders, unions and organizations. But as someone who held power during a tumultuous time in Oregon, Kotek must persuade voters that she can improve the state while avoiding blame for its problems.
Kotek’s biggest challenger is Read, who was a state representative in Oregon for 10 years before being elected treasurer. Read hopes to capitalize on voter unrest.
Read has painted himself as a political “outsider,” a move that experts say could benefit him at a time when many residents are unhappy with the status quo in Oregon’s leadership, as evidenced by Brown’s historically low approval ratings.
But some question if his experience and political positioning are enough to win.
“I think Tobias Read looks like a great Democratic candidate from like 10 years ago,” said Christopher McKnight Nichols, an associate professor of history at Oregon State University. “But I don’t know that his sort of family-oriented and slightly more moderate liberal Democratic kind of positioning is likely to resonate in 2022.”
Republicans will also a nominate their standard-bearer in a state that hasn’t seen a GOP governor in 35 years. But political experts say Republicans have an opening for victory amid widespread discontent in the state and a possible split in votes among the majority party as unaffiliated candidate Betsy Johnson makes a gubernatorial run in the fall.
“I think this is the best shot they’ve had in quite a few years,” Nichols said of the GOP party’s chances in November.
Among the crowded field of 19 Republican candidates are former Oregon House Republican leader Christine Drazan, former Oregon Republican Party Chair Bob Tiernan and Dr. Bud Pierce, a Salem oncologist.
The winners of the Democratic and Republican primaries will be in a three-way race in November with Johnson, a former longtime Democratic state senator. As a nonaffiliated candidate, Johnson does not need to run a primary race to make the fall ballot.
Determining the results in close races could be delayed due to a new Oregon law, which allows mail-in ballots postmarked by Election Day to count if county elections offices receive them within a week of the election.
The change was made during Oregon’s 2021 Legislative Session. Under previous law, ballots were only counted if they were received by 8 p.m. on Election Day.