Image for Kristof Ruling Signals a Kotek-Johnson Race in the Fall

Former New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof won’t appear on the 2022 Oregon Democratic primary ballot for governor, which may effectively turn the race into a two-woman contest between former House Speaker Tina Kotek and former Senator Betsy Johnson.

The Oregon Supreme Court confirmed this week Kristof fails to meet the constitutional three-year residency requirement to serve as governor. The court upheld the decision of Secretary of State Shemia Fagan to deny Kristof access to the ballot.

Kristof, who has raised more than $2.5 million for his gubernatorial bid and continued to campaign during his appeal to the Supreme Court, expressed disappointment with the decision, but he said he plans to remain active in Oregon, where he owns property in Yamhill County. “While I won’t be on the ballot, I’m not giving up on our state,” Kristof wrote. “I know we can be better. I will continue working to help people who are struggling, who lack opportunity and hope.”

The absence of Kristof on the Democratic primary makes Kotek an even more overwhelming favorite to win it. Her main opposition is Treasurer Tobias Read. Yamhill County Commissioner Casey Kulla dropped out of the gubernatorial race earlier to run for Oregon Labor Commissioner.

The Republican gubernatorial primary has become more crowded with the entrance of Bill Sizemore and Bob Tiernan as candidates. Both are expected to draw support from the right wing of the GOP, especially after Sandy Mayor Stan Pulliam, the most vocal supporter of Donald Trump among the candidates, admitted he and his wife joined a swinger’s club to explore extramarital relations.

Sizemore, who has never held public office but was the GOP gubernatorial nominee in 1998, is best known for his crusades to roll back property taxes. He was convicted by a jury in 2000 on racketeering charges involving his anti-tax organizations.

Tiernan, a lawyer from Lake Oswego, served in the Oregon House for two terms before losing a re-election bid in 1996 to Richard Devlin. He lost to Devlin again in 2002 in a race for a Senate seat. Tiernan was chief petitioner for successful ballot measures on mandatory minimum jail sentences, pension reform and prison labor. He served as chair of the Oregon Republican Party from 2009 to 2011. 

Former House Minority Leader Christine Drazan jumped into the race, seeking to offer a fresh face with more centrist appeal. Drazan led a GOP walkout in the 2000 short legislative session to block Democratic passage of a cap-and-trade climate change measure and filed a motion at the end of the 2021 session to censure Kotek. Drazan also approved efforts to denounce the January 6 attack on the US Capitol and the expulsion of Republican Rep. Mike Nearman for enabling armed protestors to enter the state Capitol during a COVID-related lockdown. If she won the GOP primary, there would be three women vying for the state’s top office.

Bud Pearce is running again for the Republican gubernatorial nomination after losing to Governor Brown in 2018. Brown cannot seek re-election because of term limits.

The slimmed down Democratic primary and the expanded Republican primary could enhance Johnson’s chances to become only the second non-affiliated candidate in Oregon history to be elected governor. Johnson has geared her campaign to win over independent-minded Oregonians in both parties and who don’t identify with either party. The number of Oregonians who identify with minor parties or no party now exceeds registered Republicans by more than 250,000 voters and trails Democrats by less than 40,000 voters.

The number of non-affiliated voters has risen sharply after Oregon adopted a law in 2016 that automatically registers someone to vote when they obtain or renew their driver’s license. No one is required in the process to identify with a political party.

The slimmed down Democratic primary and the expanded Republican primary could enhance Johnson’s chances to become only the second non-affiliated candidate in Oregon history to be elected governor.

Assuming Kotek captures the Democratic primary and a political conservative like Sizemore or Tiernan wins the Republican nomination, Johnson will have a clear lane as the candidate of the middle. She may try to characterize Kotek as another Portland liberal and Sizemore and Tiernan as old news with no chance to win the election.

Kristof was seen as a longshot to win the Democratic nomination, but he was expected to offer a different version of a liberal. As someone with no prior government experience., Kristof projected himself as a candidate who distill his years of reporting on global human misery into policies to attack Oregon’s festering problems, including the challenges facing rural Oregon. If he stays true to his promise, it will be interesting to see if and how Kristof might influence the Democratic primary in May and the general election battle in November.

With Kristof out of the race, Kotek won’t be forced to spend campaign funds to maintain her visibility and defend her record. She trails him and Johnson in fundraising at this point. Kristof’s departure allows Johnson to start earlier contrasting her legislative record to Kotek’s.