Image for Oregonians to Face Very Wide Open Gubernatorial Race in 2022

For the first time in a quarter century, Oregonians will vote for governor in 2022 with no clear Democratic or Republican frontrunner in sight or even any prominent early-bird candidates. In fact, more politicians have said they aren’t running than have said they are.

Kate Brown, who stepped in as Governor after John Kitzhaber’s resignation and won re-election in 2018, is prohibited by term limits from seeking re-election. Photo Credit: Danielle Peterson, Statesman Journal

Governor Brown is prohibited from running again after serving the remainder of former Governor Kitzhaber’s fourth term and winning re-election in 2018.

Democratic Secretary of State Shemia Fagan has ruled out a run after winning her office in the 2020 election with a pledge to serve her full first term. Democratic Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum easily won re-election in 2020, but doesn’t have a highly visible statewide political persona. Democratic Treasurer Tobias Read overcame a credible Republican challenger in 2020 to win re-election, but hasn’t shown any signs so far of seeking the state’s top job.

Democratic House Speaker Tina Kotek, who has served in that role since the 2013 legislative session, has previously expressed interest in running for governor, but so far has made no move to declare her candidacy. Her spokesperson said Kotek would consider her “future in the coming months”. The 2021 Oregon legislative session must end by June 28.

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, the former state treasurer now serving his second term as mayor, was once considered a likely gubernatorial aspirant. However, a riotous year on Portland streets and a rocky re-election last year, don’t leave Wheeler in a great position to seek higher office.

Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury has been rumored as interested in a gubernatorial bid. However, she is also keeping her cards close to her vest at this point. Kafoury’s husband, Nik Blosser, formerly served as Brown’s chief of staff before joining President Biden’s transition team. He now serves as chief of staff for the Office of Cabinet Affairs in the Biden administration and has been working remotely from Oregon, as have other Biden staffers. Blosser may be among Biden staffers called to work in the White House as early as next month.

Someone emerging from political nowhere is more likely to occur in the Republican primary, where it is hard to point to any current elected official well positioned for – or interested in – an uphill gubernatorial run in a state firmly in the blue column. Chris Dudley used his basketball star power to capture the GOP nomination in 2010 over party stalwarts, but he lost to Kitzhaber in a relatively tight race. Dudley moved to San Diego shortly after his loss.

It would be even harder now for a newcomer or moderate Republican to prevail in a GOP primary dominated by rural, conservative voters in the Trump era. Knute Buehler managed to emerge from a Republican primary in 2018 with moderate positions and attracted competitive campaign funding, only to lose handily to Brown. There are 300,000 more Democrats than Republicans in Oregon. Non-affiliated voters also outnumber Republicans.

What we may be witnessing is a game of political chicken in which candidates wait to see who jumps into the race first, the reception they receive and the initial sources of support they have enlisted.

State Senator Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose with deep family roots in Central Oregon, has toyed with mounting an independent gubernatorial candidacy. Willamette Week reported a survey conducted this spring that appeared to explore an independent candidacy matching Johnson’s political views.

While a wide-open gubernatorial race may seem refreshing, it also may be an invitation for one or more deep-pocketed interest groups to band together to push a candidate of their choice. That’s what happened in the 2020 secretary of state race when public employee unions congealed behind the late-filing candidacy of Fagan, who went on to defeat former State Senator Mark Hass in the Democratic primary and GOP State Senator Kim Thatcher in the general election. In the past, conservative businessmen in the timber and natural resource industries have bankrolled GOP gubernatorial candidates.

What we may be witnessing is a game of political chicken in which candidates wait to see who jumps into the race first, the reception they receive and the initial sources of support they have enlisted. Serious candidates can’t wait too long, however, because gubernatorial campaigns take loads of money. The 2018 Brown-Buehler race shattered records with campaign spending that topped $37 million. Brown raised $18.5 million and spent $16.4 million, according to election records. Buehler raised and spent $19.3 million.

Brown received $2 million from the Democratic Governors Association and Buehler received $3.4 million from the Republican Governors Association. Both groups aggregate donations from individuals to route to their respective candidates. Nike cofounder Phil Knight contributed $2.5 million directly to Buehler and another $1 million to the Republican Governors Association. Nike contributed $110,000 to Brown’s campaign. Public employee unions contributed $3.3 million to Brown’s campaign.