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With a chance to make history, Tina Kotek wins Oregon Democratic primary for governor

Former speaker of the state House Tina Kotek has won the Democratic primary for governor in Oregon. She is pictured here speaking to supporters before the results of Oregon's primary election were announced in Portland, Ore., Tuesday May 17, 2022.
Craig Mitchelldyer
/
AP
Former speaker of the state House Tina Kotek has won the Democratic primary for governor in Oregon. She is pictured here speaking to supporters before the results of Oregon's primary election were announced in Portland, Ore., Tuesday May 17, 2022.

Updated May 18, 2022 at 12:50 AM ET

Voters aren't thrilled with the state of affairs in Oregon, but that wasn't enough for Democrats to reject a longtime party leader on Tuesday.

Former speaker of the state House Tina Kotek has prevailed over Treasurer Tobias Read in the Oregon Democratic primary for governor, according to a race call from The Associated Press. If she prevails in November, Kotek will become the first openly lesbian governor elected in the nation.

Kotek's win indicates her long history of championing progressive policies – and the many institutional allies she made in the process – were enough to sway liberal primary voters amid some serious headwinds.

Polling has repeatedly shown many Oregon voters are alarmed by rising homelessness, gun violence, and other societal woes, and Read attempted to run a centrist campaign that blamed Kotek for presiding over a state in decline.

Kotek successfully sold voters on her deep knowledge of the state government's inner workings, along with her track record passing bills that, among other things, raised the minimum wage, enacted new gun controls, regulated carbon emissions and protected abortion.

The Republicans

As of 12:50 a.m. ET on Wednesday, there was still no race call on the GOP side. Leading the 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 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 six 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

Dirk VanderHart
Dirk VanderHart covers Oregon politics and government for OPB. Before barging onto the radio in 2018, he spent more than a decade as a newspaper reporter—much of that time reporting on city government for the Portland Mercury. He’s also had stints covering chicanery in Southwest Missouri, the wilds of Ohio in Ohio, and all things Texas on Capitol Hill.