Oregon GOP gubernatorial candidates hope 2022 puts an end to 40-year losing streak
Most political watchers are expecting a national red wave, and conservatives are hoping it travels as far as Oregon.
If there was ever an argument for a child’s name playing a role in how they might turn out, Tim and Melissa Knopp’s firstborn son would make an excellent case study.
Reagan Knopp was named for exactly who you think: the former movie star, the California governor turned U.S. president, the staunch believer in trickle-down economics, the father of modern Republicanism.
Knopp’s father has been in the state Legislature off and on since the 1990s and is now the Senate Republican leader. And Knopp, 26, now a political consultant based in Albany, Oregon, grew up surrounded by politicians. He played hide-and-go-seek with his siblings in the state Capitol, ate lunch at Chuck E. Cheese with lobbyists – before there were limits on the gifts lawmakers could receive – and was subjected to friendly, nonpartisan noogies by former Democratic state Treasurer Ben Westlund.
Knopp knows exactly how hard it is to be a Republican in Oregon. Democrats have dominated state elected offices for decades. Today, the state GOP is in disarray; the chair recently stepped down citing “psychological warfare tactics” he believes are being used within his own party. And Republicans have struggled to coalesce behind candidates who are moderate enough to appeal to statewide voters, yet conservative enough to win a primary.
The last time a Republican was a governor in this state was 1987; nine years before Reagan Knopp was born. But as he thinks about the 2022 governor’s race, for the first time in his adult life, Knopp feels hopeful a member of his own party could make it to Mahonia Hall, the governor’s mansion.
He sees this election cycle as an opportunity to show Oregonians how Republican priorities dating back to his namesake - fundamentals such as lowering taxes and giving parents more choice about where their kids attend school - could improve their lives.
“Ronald Reagan has a famous speech about America being a shining city on a hill and Americans being capable of making our lives better by … not getting caught up in our own problems,” Knopp said. “We (tend to) focus on the challenges and don’t focus on the solutions. The Republican party has to tell people the values we have instead of the specific policies we oppose.”
In a recent poll conducted by DHM Research for Oregon Public Broadcasting, only 18% of Oregonians think the state is headed in the right direction. It’s a record low in DHM Research surveys, which date back to 1993. Respondents pointed to the housing crisis, rising crime, the cost of living and political leadership when registering their dissatisfaction.
The current Democratic governor is also considered one of the least popular state executives in the nation. Under Democratic control, Oregonians have watched state leaders bungle a litany of bureaucratic work, including both the state housing agency and the employment department repeatedly failing to deliver financial help to Oregonians battered by the COVID-19 pandemic in a timely manner.
On top of the economic distress, an unpopular incumbent and struggling state agencies, this election cycle is expected to favor Republicans nationally. Most political watchers are expecting a red wave and conservatives are hoping it travels as far as Oregon. Some Republicans are also hoping Betsy Johnson, a longtime Democratic senator who is running as an independent for governor, will help Republicans by taking more votes away from the Democratic nominee.
Reagan Knopp isn’t sure yet who he will cast his vote for in the primary.
But there is one trait he would like to see.
“I’m looking for a candidate that is offering the Ronald Reagan style of optimism,” he said.
Nineteen people are seeking the GOP nomination. So far, there’s no clear frontrunner, but several candidates have fundraising momentum, a robust web presence and campaign activities.
Two of the leading GOP candidates, former House Minority Leader Christine Drazan and Dr. Bud Pierce, a Salem oncologist, who won the GOP nomination and lost to Gov. Kate Brown in 2016, declined to fill out the survey. Pierce also declined an OPB interview. Baker City Mayor Kerry McQuisten and former Alsea Superintendent Marc Thielman also declined to respond to the survey.
Here’s a look at the most prominent Republicans:
Out of the nineteen Republican candidates vying for the job, former House Minority Leader Christine Drazan is the only one who has won election to the state Legislature in this decade. In Salem, Drazan carved out a reputation as a savvy strategist who wasn’t afraid to rely on legislative stall tactics to leverage power for her party. She led members of her caucus to Reno, fleeing the state Capitol, in order to block a climate change bill that was a Democratic priority.
In an election cycle where the electorate is in a seemingly more anti-establishment, combative mood, Drazan has been criticized as being part of the so-called establishment. But Drazan, who grew up in Klamath Falls, views her legislative experience as a selling point.
“It’s an interesting idea that there is some value in having literally no experience whatsoever in government,” Drazan said. “You can’t squander any time in the governor’s office if you really want to solve the significant problems in our state right now. You have to hit the ground running day one … You can’t fix something you know nothing about, and that’s the challenge Republicans in the primary will need to better understand moving forward.”
Drazan is a former executive director of the Cultural Advocacy Coalition, an organization that lobbies on behalf of art, culture, heritage and the humanities and she also worked in the state Capitol as chief of staff to former Oregon House Speaker Mark Simmons. She won her own House seat in 2018, then quickly rose to the top job in her caucus after staging a coup less than a year into the job. Drazan unseated the House Minority Leader with the promise of playing a more aggressive and strategic role in electing more Republicans to the House.
She is also a mom to three children; her youngest child started attending private school for the first time during the pandemic when remote learning through the public school system wasn’t working for her. Drazan said improving student achievement would be one of her priorities as governor.
“For too long, Oregon’s graduation rates have been near the worst in the country,” Drazan recently wrote in a campaign email. “They only recently improved because Gov. Brown and the Legislature lowered the standards for achieving a degree, cheapening the value of an Oregon education in the process, and setting our kids up for failure in their adult life.”
Drazan said she wants to offer parents more school choices; she said she supports charter schools and increasing classroom time.
“We have funded schools for a very long time on a formula based entirely on attendance and just think about the value set there, I always believe that’s an incentive to pack classrooms because larger class sizes are more efficient,” Drazan said.
Drazan said one-party Democratic rule and what she sees as the top-down approach to governing by recent state leaders have devastated the state.
“Too often politicians get in and they might be well-intentioned but they think they know what is best. And I want to be known as someone who respects Oregonians … I don’t want people to move to Idaho or Texas or anywhere else. I want them to stay here, invest here, build their businesses here and raise their kids here,” she said.
Stan Pulliam’s favorite part of his job as mayor of Sandy, population about 11,000, is swearing in police officers.
“The top issue (facing the state) absolutely is the festering culture of criminality and mass homelessness decaying every corner of our state,” he said in response to OPB questions about his campaign. “There has been a massive uptick in crime and riots that we’ve watched on the nightly news, all the while politicians have slowly defunded our police with their words and actions.”
If elected governor, Pulliam said he would triple the size of the state police and deploy the Oregon National Guard to patrol the streets. He would also deputize members of the state police as U.S. marshals. The move, he said, would put political protestors who are arrested in front of federal judges, instead of the Multnomah County prosecutor who he described as “soft on crime.” (Multnomah County District Attorney Mike Schmidt has said his office will not press charges for city ordinance violations that do not involve deliberate property damage, theft, or the use or threat of force against another person, barring unusual circumstances.)
Pulliam rose to prominence during the pandemic, fighting Gov. Kate Brown’s COVID-19 emergency orders. He pushed for the reopening of businesses in the midst of the shutdown. He’s running to the right of Drazan. He has long ties to Oregon politics, having worked on former legislator Kevin Mannix’s failed gubernatorial bid in 2006.
For a moment early in the campaign, it seemed as if Pulliam was the candidate who best encapsulated the GOP’s current populist mood.
His star dimmed a bit when Willamette Week broke a story that he and his wife were swingers. Pulliam is adamant most voters don’t care about his sexual activities, and said his support has continued to grow. But the outing did likely cost him the support of the anti-abortion group Oregon Right to Life, a key endorsement in the Republican primary. The group endorsed other GOP hopefuls but left Pulliam off the list despite his pro-life stance.
“One thing that has changed is people know more about us than they did before … They also know how we respond to adversity,” he said. " … Mackensey and I are a pretty average, normal married couple, middle class living in a suburban area in the Portland area and we’ve been married for quite a while and marriages go through ebbs and flows. And we’ve come through stronger than ever before.”
Bob Tiernan stepped out of political hibernation in February and immediately made waves in the GOP field.
A former two-term state House member, Tiernan led the charge on a raft of conservative ballot measures in the 90s – including the landmark Measure 11, which created mandatory sentences for some violent crimes. His long experience in business has helped him build a war chest that few other Republicans have matched.
The Lake Oswego resident loaned his own campaign $500,000, then got another $500,000 from a company with ties to Grocery Outlet, the bargain chain that he oversaw as president and chief operating officer for four years.
The money alone makes Tiernan a legitimate contender for the Republican nomination, since he’ll be able to blanket airwaves and mailboxes with his message. He argues his problem-solving experience as an executive, combined with his past work in the Capitol and decades as a high-ranking reservist in the Navy, is what Republican voters should focus on.
“It’s not who wants to be governor, or who has concerns,” Tiernan said. “It’s who has the experience to be governor... When you’re the president of a large company, you make important decisions every week.”
Like many other GOP candidates, Tiernan’s pitch is big on ending what he calls “out of control crime, lawlessness, and riots.” He pledges to use the bully pulpit of the governor to convince local officials to take a sterner approach to crime. Also like other candidates, Tiernan wants to usher homeless people off the street and into shelters, and to improve outcomes in public schools.
“It doesn’t really matter what the problem is,” said Tiernan, who also did a two-year stint as chair of the Oregon Republican Party beginning in 2009. “If you have experience solving problems and taking them to resolution, that’s a talent.”
Jessica Gomez was one of the earlier entrants to the GOP field. She’s also faced pressure to make an early exit.
The founder and CEO of a small microelectronics manufacturer in Medford, Gomez brings a business background and compelling personal story to the field. She believes her experience being homeless as a teenager will help her tackle what voters believe is the state’s most-pressing problem with empathy, and that being Latina gives her a perspective no other candidate has.
“We haven’t had someone who looks like me, who sounds like me, who started a business from the ground up in that way for a very, very long time,” said Gomez, who has loaned her campaign more than $300,000. “It’s time. Oregon needs a CEO and needs a leader.”
History suggests Gomez’s lack of elective experience could be a major hurdle. Oregon has not elected a governor with as little experience – or even a governor who had not previously served in the Legislature – since 1938.
Gomez contends her policy ideas are better thought out than her opponents. One example she often highlights: A proposal to set up the state’s system for addressing homelessness in a method similar to how Oregon handles assisted living for the elderly, with long-term and shorter-term facilities depending on a person’s needs. She also stresses the need for Oregon to better develop rural economies, and has touted proposals to reduce taxes and invest in job training.
On the more moderate edge of this year’s GOP field, Gomez does not traffic in doubts about whether the 2020 presidential election was stolen like some of her competitors, and readily acknowledges that human activity has caused climate change.
Gomez said she has been asked to bow out, which would cede that territory to other candidates. Business lobbyist Shaun Jillions and others approached her to suggest that she instead run to be the state’s labor commissioner, where they believe she stands a better chance of winning. Gomez declined.
“My skill set is much better suited to the CEO of our state,” she said. “There are a lot of people who will tell you you need to step back and get in line. You need to do the work and get the elected official experience. My intent is not to have a political career. My intent is to help lead our state… then I’m going to go back to my job of being a CEO.”
Gomez has pursued politics before, however, failing in a 2018 bid for state Senate.
Bridget Barton has spent decades thinking and writing about state politics and policies via a now-defunct magazine and ongoing newsletter. She also occasionally advises clients on political matters through her consulting firm, Third Century Solutions. But Barton, more than any other serious GOP candidate, is hoping to sell herself as a political outsider.
“I’ve never engaged personally in partisan politics as a politician myself,” said Barton, of West Linn. “I’ve stayed on the thoughtful, thinking, ideas side of the divide.”
That’s not to say that she shies from partisan rhetoric. Barton’s pledge is to wrest back control of Oregon from a progressive wing of the Democratic party she says is “taking the state off a cliff.”
Most voters, she says – even Democrats – want common sense answers to the issues of homelessness, crime and livability that have dominated the race. Barton says Drazan, the only candidate with recent experience in the Legislature, hasn’t stood up to the “leftist agenda.”
“I have spent most of my career paying attention to these people and looking at ideas and solutions,” she said. “I come to it with certain expertise that others do not.”
As a recovering alcoholic, Barton says she understands what it takes to beat addiction. And she has likened her hobby of training horses to how she would address the growing homeless population.
“When you work with [horses], you make the right thing easy and the wrong thing difficult,” she said at one appearance. “If you look at our homeless problem, we don’t make the right thing easy and the wrong thing difficult. We make the right thing difficult and the wrong thing easy.”
The horse analogies extend to every corner of Barton’s campaign. A head-turning television ad shows Barton shooting basketballs at a hoop in a corral, not far from a pile of manure. In a spin on the schoolyard game “HORSE,” Barton says in the ad she is calling out Oregon politicians on their “Horse Sh%!”
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