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Tina Kotek, Christine Drazan locked in tight race for Oregon governor

Kristyna Wentz-Graff

From left: Republican candidate Christine Drazan and Democratic candidate Tina Kotek are vying for the Oregon governor's office.

Democrat Tina Kotek and Republican Christine Drazan remain locked in a tight race for Oregon governor that may not be finalized for days, according to early election results.

Preliminary returns released Tuesday showed Kotek with a slight edge, but vote counting is expected to continue throughout election night and beyond. Betsy Johnson, running as an unaffiliated candidate, was a distant third.

“I know that everyone is anxious for this race to be called. Believe me, I am too,” Kotek said taking the stage before Democratic supporters around 11 p.m. “The reality is this race is just too close to call tonight. I’m optimistic about the numbers, but it’s still too close.”

The race in Oregon garnered national attention in the run-up to Election Day: It was one of the most competitive governor’s races in the nation, with three former state lawmakers vying for the spot.

A combination of factors made this year’s contest for Oregon’s executive seat especially notable. Johnson, the former state senator, appeared early on to be siphoning votes from the Democratic candidate Kotek, which made Democrats feel more vulnerable and Republicans hopeful they could put a Republican in Mahonia Hall for the first time since 1987.

Throughout the race, Republicans had an easy line of attack. They simply pointed to the widespread homelessness in Oregon, and particularly in Portland, and growing concerns over crime and gun violence. They also tied Kotek to Gov. Kate Brown, who polls have shown is one of the least popular governors in the nation.

After early returns Tuesday, Drazan’s campaign expressed optimism as the race remained tight.

“Oregonians have spoken and we are waiting, we’re waiting for the votes to be counted but we are confident that they will demand change, that they will vote for balance,” Drazan said speaking to her supporters late Tuesday. “They will create the accountability that we haven’t seen in our state for far too long.”

Drazan said she was prepared to lead Oregon in a “new direction.”

All three candidates were well funded, and even before the final push, this was the most expensive governor’s race in state history; both Drazan and Johnson received millions of dollars in financial support from Nike co-founder Phil Knight. Kotek also had deep-pocketed support and brought in a record amount from the state’s largest public union.

Jonathan Levinson

Candidate for the Democratic nomination for Governor Tina Kotek and her wife Aimee Kotek Wilson speak to supporters at an election night party at Revolution Hall on May 17, 2022 in Portland, Ore.

Kotek: A housing champion

No lawmaker in recent history has done more to address the housing crisis than Kotek. As governor, she promised to do more.

While serving as Speaker of the House, Kotek pushed through statewide rent control and a measure to allow some cities to build duplexes and triplexes to increase housing stock, despite zoning restrictions. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, she also pushed to turn motels into emergency shelter beds to increase the supply of beds for people experiencing homelessness.

Kotek said it was time to get “serious about building a lot more housing,” and promised that would take place under her tenure.

“On day one, I will do what Kate Brown wouldn’t,” Kotek said in an ad released on Oct. 14. “I will get people the help they need to move off the streets.”

Kristyna Wentz-Graff

Republican gubernatorial candidate Christine Drazan speaks at a campaign event at The Barn at Countryside in Aurora, Ore., Oct. 18, 2022.

Drazan: Says Oregon needs a change

Drazan was first elected to the Oregon House in 2018 and quickly rose to lead her caucus after less than one year on the job. She carved out a reputation as a politician not afraid to deploy hardball tactics and her tenure was marked by walkouts, bill reading and partisanship.

She led her party on a walkout to Reno, Nevada, in 2020 to block a Democratic bill aimed at combating climate change by regulating carbon emissions.. She also managed to use delay tactics, such as forcing bills to be read out loud, to slow the Democrats’ agenda and land her party an equal number of seats on a legislative redistricting committee.

Drazan’s backers said it was an important show of force, and under her leadership, by 2021, Republicans won an additional seat in the House, the party’s first gain in a decade.

On the campaign trail, Drazan promised to allow for increased logging in Oregon, reduce business regulations and declare a state of emergency on homelessness. Such a declaration, she said, could allow her to challenge a federal court ruling limiting when homeless camps could be forcibly removed.

Drazan was less vocal about her anti-abortion stance and downplayed any possible role she could have rolling back protections on the ability to access an abortion in Oregon. Democrats had been hoping outrage over the U.S. Supreme Court’s abortion decisions this summer would drive turnout, and Kotek and her supporters spent the campaign trying to portray Drazan as a political extremist.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff
Independent candidate for governor Betsy Johnson talks with bar and restaurant owners about issues they have faced in downtown Portland, Oct. 17, 2022.

Johnson: Neither party is working

Shortly after Johnson announced her candidacy for governor, she had the financial backing of some of the state’s wealthiest individuals.

Johnson promised to unite the two parties and tried to offer an alternative to Democratic control in Oregon without turning the state red. The veteran lawmaker quit the Democratic party to run as an unaffiliated candidate. But despite the large sums of money, her campaign failed to gain much traction.

Johnson, who is a timber heiress and served as the state’s lead budget writer for several years, continually lagged in the polls behind Drazan and Kotek.

Near the end of the race, Johnson was often asked whether she could act as a spoiler candidate, helping elect Drazan to office.

Johnson, who grew up in Oregon and supports abortion access, said she doesn’t believe the state would ever elect a governor who opposes it.

“This is a solidly pro-choice state, and it’s gonna remain so,” Johnson said in an earlier interview with OPB.

Despite the dismal polling, she said she wouldn’t drop out of the race.

“Sitting around watching Oregon in a death spiral, I have one last fight in me, and this is it,” Johnson said. “And I’m not going to surrender a place I love without one hell of a fight.”

Copyright 2022 Oregon Public Broadcasting