Nonaffiliated candidate Betsy Johnson was a distant third
By Julia Shumway, Oregon Capital Chronicle
Oregon’s race for governor remained too close to call Tuesday night.
With more than 1.3 million votes counted as of 11:30 p.m. Tuesday, Democrat Tina Kotek held a narrow lead over Republican Christine Drazan. Nonaffiliated candidate Betsy Johnson was in a distant third and conceded shortly after 8:30.
Kotek took the stage at the Democratic Party of Oregon’s party at a Hyatt hotel in Portland at 11 p.m., telling supporters that Oregon laws that expand voter access are good for democracy but mean Oregonians need to be patient on election night. Democrats expect that ballots postmarked by Election Day will favor Democratic candidates because of the party’s get-out-the vote efforts.
“I know that everyone is anxious for this race to be called,” she said. “Believe me, I am too, but the reality is the race is just too close to call tonight. I am optimistic about the numbers, but it’s still too close.”
Drazan also addressed supporters at the Oregon Gardens in Silverton late Tuesday night, telling them that they always knew the race would be tight.
“We know that when the results are all counted and all the results are in, we will in fact lead Oregon in a new direction,” she said. “But we’re not there yet.”
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, could also claim that last distinction.)
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 has 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 has 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.”
Julia Shumway has reported on government and politics in Iowa and Nebraska, spent time at the Bend Bulletin and most recently was a legislative reporter for the Arizona Capitol Times in Phoenix.