Elections, News, Oregon

Democrat Tina Kotek is Oregon’s next governor

This story originally appeared in the Oregon Capital Chronicle and is republished here under a CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 license. Read more stories at oregoncapitalchronicle.com.

Democrat Tina Kotek, the former speaker of the Oregon House, has fended off Republican Christine Drazan and nonaffiliated candidate Betsy Johnson and will be Oregon’s next governor.

The Associated Press called the race in Kotek’s favor Thursday evening, after several counties reported the votes of tens of thousands of outstanding ballots. Kotek’s lead over Drazan has continued to grow over the past several days as more votes were reported from Multnomah County, the state’s most populous and where Kotek won nearly 70% of the vote.

Earlier on Thursday, before a crowd of supporters and reporters at the Portland waterfront, Kotek claimed victory and pledged to focus first on addressing homelessness.

“I am honored and humbled by this opportunity to serve, and I will strive every day to be a force for positive change in our state,” Kotek said. “Now the election is over, and the really hard work begins.”

Drazan declined to concede during the day Thursday, saying she was exercising caution as county clerks continued to count ballots.

The race presented Oregon voters with three choices: Drazan, who portrayed her campaign as an opportunity for change; Kotek, who labeled herself a “proven progressive fighter,” and Johnson, a self-described “equal opportunity pisser-offer” who pledged to be loyal only to the people of Oregon. 

Each candidate set out to make history: Drazan as the state’s first Republican governor since the 1980s, Johnson as Oregon’s first independent governor since the 1930s and Kotek as one of the nation’s first openly lesbian governor. (Massachusetts Democrat Maura Healey, who won Tuesday, is the other.)

The race was also the most expensive in Oregon’s history: By Election Day, Kotek had raised nearly $27 million; Drazan, $22 million and Johnson, $15 million. They had spent a combined $63 million, and those figures aren’t yet final. Candidates have seven days after the date of a transaction to report it. 

And it brought national attention. As of Oct. 31, the Democratic Governors Association had spent more than $7 million on the race between direct contributions to Kotek and contributions to political action committees dedicated to tearing down Johnson and Drazan. The Republican Governors Association had given Drazan more than $7 million as of Nov. 7. 

In recent weeks, President Joe Biden and progressive U.S. Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts stumped for Kotek, while moderate Republican Govs. Larry Hogan of Maryland and Glenn Youngkin of Virginia helped Drazan make her case. Johnson decried the visits from political celebrities and instead opted to fly around the state, meeting with voters in small towns throughout Oregon.  

Kotek made preserving reproductive rights one of the main focuses of her campaign after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. As speaker of the House in 2017, Kotek championed an Oregon law that ensured the right to an abortion at no cost to the patient.

She also highlighted her work on homelessness, which Oregon voters have repeatedly described to pollsters as their most important issue. As speaker, Kotek led efforts to add hundreds of new shelter beds in repurposed hotels and passed a first-in-the-nation law requiring cities to allow duplexes and other small multi-family homes wherever they permit single-family homes. Oregon’s homelessness crisis is tied to a statewide shortage of homes, particularly affordable homes.

Drazan based her campaign around themes of public safety and perceived discontent with Oregon’s 40 years of Democratic control. Multiple polls throughout the past year have shown that a majority of Oregon voters described the state as being on the wrong track, and outgoing Gov. Kate Brown has consistently been labeled the nation’s least popular governor in regular national polls from Morning Consult. 

Her final ad featured the same question she asked voters at most campaign events and rhetorically posed during debates: “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?” 

Johnson trailed the two major-party candidates in polls since the primary, though she still appeared to be a viable contender when many voters were making up their minds. She was boosted by Nike co-founder Phil Knight, who gave her campaign $3.75 million, but Knight began writing checks to Drazan in October after deciding that Johnson couldn’t win. Oregon’s richest man described himself as an “anti-Tina (Kotek) person” in a rare interview with the New York Times. He has given Drazan $1.5 million. 

Johnson’s support plummeted in more recent polls, but she insisted she was in the race until the end. She continued traveling, sharing pictures of a projection of her glasses – she calls it the “Bet-Signal,” channeling Batman – throughout Oregon. 

In a concession message Tuesday night, Johnson said she knew the odds were long but didn’t care.

“I simply could not and would not give up on the state I love without one hell of a fight,” she wrote to supporters. “And while the election outcome fell short of what we all wanted; I believe this campaign was a success. We made an impact.”

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