Oregon governor’s race a nail-biter, too early to call

SALEM, Ore. (AP) — Oregon’s gubernatorial election, usually a shoo-in for the Democratic candidate, has turned into a nail-biter with the Republican challenger so close in initial returns that the race was too early to call Tuesday night.

After polls closed, with 40% of statewide votes counted, Democrat Tina Kotek and Republican Christine Drazan were almost even. Unaffiliated candidate Betsy Johnson was a distant third, according to unofficial results from the secretary of state’s office.

Johnson told supporters in a statement that “the election outcome fell short of what we all wanted.”

“No matter who wins the election for governor, they should … govern for all of Oregon and all Oregonians regardless of zip code or party label. They should lead as an Oregonian first and as a Democrat or Republican second,” Johnson said.

The three women, all former legislators, were the top candidates in the race to become the next governor of the state, which hasn’t elected a Republican to the office in 40 years.

Kotek was the longest serving Oregon House speaker. Drazan is a former leader of the Republican minority in the House. Several opinion polls had showed the two statistically tied, which prompted President Joe Biden to come to Portland recently to boost Kotek’s chances.

The presence of Johnson, who was in the statehouse for 20 years and quit the Democratic Party in 2021 to run as an unaffiliated candidate, presented a wild card in the race. Johnson was hoping to woo centrist Republican and Democratic voters, as well as the 1 million unaffiliated voters who slightly outnumber registered Democrats and are 40% greater than registered Republicans. But the early returns had her with less than 10% of the vote.

Several voters said on Tuesday they were concerned about abortion rights, homelessness and the economy.

Portland resident Emily Lamunyan said that if reproductive rights were scaled back following an election she didn’t vote in, “I would never forgive myself.”

Democrats were worried that Johnson could attract enough voters on the left to boost Drazan’s odds. If elected, Drazan would be governing alongside a Legislature that has been dominated by Democrats.

Her veto power could stymie progressive legislation, and Democrats warn that a Drazan victory could threaten abortion rights, environmental protections and democratically run elections in the state.

An Do, executive director of Planned Parenthood PAC of Oregon, said a vote for Johnson would only help Drazan — “an anti-choice Republican” — win.

Drazan, for her part, blames Democrats for homelessness, crime and inflation, saying picking Kotek would be like reelecting Gov. Kate Brown, who was barred by term limits from running again.

“Tina Kotek will be four more years of the same,” Drazan told Sean Hannity on Fox News last week.

Johnson had aimed to be the first unaffiliated woman to be elected governor of a state. The last and only time an unaffiliated candidate won a gubernatorial race in Oregon was in 1930, when Julius Meier was elected to one term.