For Just the Second Time in 25 Years, the Oregon Governor’s Mansion Is Up for Grabs. Here Are Four Ways the Race Could Go.

As WW spoke to Salem insiders and close observers of Democratic Party politics, a handful of dynamics were mentioned repeatedly.

Betsy Johnson State Sen. Betsy Johnson (D-Scappoose) at a Timber Unity rally early in 2020. (Justin Katigbak) (Justin Katigbak/Justin Katigbak)

In all but one election in the past 25 years, Oregon voters had an obvious choice for governor: the person who had already served.

Gov. John Kitzhaber held the office for three full terms and resigned shortly into his fourth, paving the way for Gov. Kate Brown to win the rest of his term and her own reelection. (Gov. Ted Kulongoski took a turn between Kitzhaber’s second and third terms because Oregon’s term limits precluded him from staying in Mahonia Hall for more than eight consecutive years.)

But next year will be different: Brown is blocked by term limits from seeking a third term. That leaves a wide open field of Democrats—who have won every gubernatorial election in that quarter-century.

“This is a wide open election,” says Pacific University professor Jim Moore. “It’s clear there’s a big difference between how Republicans and Democrats view what state government ought to be doing. [With] open elections for the governorship, we have those conversations statewide.”

Primary season doesn’t begin in earnest until after Labor Day, or at least the legislative session. “We don’t seem to be able to do two things at once,” says one political professional.

July or August may bring more candidates’ names to the fore, but as WW spoke to Salem insiders and close observers of Democratic Party politics, a handful of dynamics were mentioned repeatedly. A few clear questions are narrowing the field of politicians who could assume the executive job in a year and a half.

Will public employee unions buy the election?

In 2020, public employee unions flexed their fundraising muscle and determined the course of the Democratic primary for Oregon secretary of state, backing then-Sen. Shemia Fagan (D-East Portland) for the nomination, then helping her win the office itself. (Public employee unions spent more than $450,000 in the primary alone.)

Plenty of insiders see that history repeating in the governor’s race—even with Fagan herself running for the top job.

But when she campaigned for secretary of state, Fagan said she would not run for governor in the middle of her first term.

She shows no signs of budging from that pledge. “As I have said multiple times over the past year, I am not running for governor in 2022,” Fagan tells WW. “Every day, I treasure the fact that Oregonians elected me to be their secretary of state for the next four years, and that is exactly what I intend to do.”

Another close ally of public employee unions: House Speaker Tina Kotek. But Kotek, arguably the mostly powerful elected official in state politics—even if you include Brown—has taken flak from fellow Democrats for sharing power with Republicans while drawing the boundaries of Oregon’s new 6th Congressional District.

In an interview with WW last month, Congressman Peter DeFazio was openly critical of Kotek: “Oregon House Speaker Tina Kotek created even more uncertainty by giving away the Democratic advantage of redistricting, so inevitably the congressional districts are going to court.”

Kotek isn’t publicly ruling out a run. “Speaker Kotek is focused on completing the legislative session,” says spokesperson Danny Moran. “She will consider her future in the coming months.”

The other variable affecting public employee investment in the race: None of the names currently being floated is the sort of Democratic candidate that inspires fierce opposition from organized labor. So the unions might invest less heavily in the primary’s outcome.

Will it just be a free for all?

Assuming Kotek and Fagan aren’t in the race, frightening away opponents with labor money, there’s a potential for a wide open field, with as many as half a dozen candidates jumping in. 2002 and 1994 were the two most recent open elections for the job. In 1994, sitting Gov. Barbara Roberts opted not to run for reelection once Kitzhaber entered the race. Three Democrats ran in 2002.

In such a scenario, some of the three Democrats that hold statewide office would surely run: Treasurer Tobias Read (who’s raised $181,000 this year), Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum (who’s raised $17,000) and Labor Commissioner Val Hoyle (who’s raised $179,000).

Of those, Read has raised the most. Read says he’s focused on his current role, working specifically on helping Oregon recover from the pandemic and from the wildfires. “However, I am looking at the best way I can serve Oregonians moving forward,” he tells WW.

Hoyle declined to comment. Hoyle’s ambitions to go to Congress might also be a factor in whether she enters the race. Rosenblum says she’s listening to what Oregonians want from their elected officials as she mulls her next move. “I am super-busy with the legislative session and very focused on doing my job as AG,” she adds. (Disclosure: Rosenblum is married to the co-owner of WW’s parent company.)

Other well-placed Democrats include Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury. “I haven’t ruled out anything, but at this point I’m focused on my work at the county,” Kafoury tells WW in an email. “It’s been a heck of a year!”

Most notable among those who are not running: Rukaiyah Adams, a civic leader, has already taken herself out of consideration. “I’m not running for governor this time, but I am thinking deeply about public service,” Adams told The Oregonian in April.

Do Republicans have a snowball’s chance in hell?

There are 300,000 more Democrats than Republicans registered in Oregon. There are also 967,000 unaffiliated voters in the state, which means there are more of them than Republicans (who number 742,000).

But two years into the first term of a Democratic president may represent the sweet spot for Oregon Republicans—or at least the sweetest spot they’re likely to get this decade. That’s because the sentiment about a new president usually sours enough to make a midterm election difficult for his party.

In 2010, the Republicans got as close as they have to the governor’s mansion in a generation with Chris Dudley as the candidate. That was two years into President Barack Obama’s first term.

Republicans have one other reason for hope: Brown is enormously unpopular. She has a 38% popularity rating as of March 2021 statewide, according to DHM Research.

The next election may test whether Donald Trump cratered the brand of Republicans enough to make it impossible for them to win a blue state even as the Democratic governor cratered her own reputation.

“Kate Brown is Donald Trump,” says one political consultant, comparing their popularity.

But what Republicans really want is to run against Kate Brown 2.0. The closer a Democratic candidate is to the Brown administration and riots in Portland, the more excited GOP strategists are.

“I don’t think it’s impossible because there’s a depth of disappointment about Gov. Brown,” says Portland pollster John Horvick.

Will there be a wild card in this race?

Republicans are perennially on the hunt for the business executive with an impressive enough profile to win over the Republican Party base—which in recent years has tended toward extremists—and then to have crossover appeal.

But what if that person wasn’t a Republican?

This year’s race could feature state Sen. Betsy Johnson (D-Scappoose) running as an independent. Her name has been floated before. Johnson, already a powerful player as a centrist in the Oregon Senate, could potentially attract massive campaign donations.

If Republicans pick a right-wing nominee, Johnson could siphon votes from that side of the aisle, throwing the vote to Democrats. But she could also rain on the Democrats’ parade—by creating a protest vote for moderate, rural Democrats like her who think Portland has lost its mind.

Sources tell WW that a poll conducted last month sought to determine Oregon voters’ attitude toward a Democrat who might run as an independent. That matches Johnson’s profile, but she did not respond to a request for comment.

Willamette Week’s reporting has concrete impacts that change laws, force action from civic leaders, and drive compromised politicians from public office. Support WW's journalism today.