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Oregon primary election: Progressive women win big, Republican races remain tight

Ballots await processing by workers at the Marion County Clerk’s Office in Salem on Monday, May 16. Voters will be contacted about missing signatures or other issues can be resolved to get the ballot counted. (Ron Cooper/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

Progressive women won big in Oregon’s Democratic primaries Tuesday, while contested Republican races remained close with many ballots left to count. 

Former House Speaker Tina Kotek won the Democratic primary for governor. Labor Commissioner Val Hoyle, state Rep. Andrea Salinas and attorney Jamie McLeod-Skinner are winning their congressional primaries. McLeod-Skinner was on her way to defeating an incumbent Congressman, a rare feat in Oregon politics.

And Portland civil rights attorney Christina Stephenson is leading the nonpartisan race for commissioner of the state Bureau of Labor and Industries. If she remains above 50%, she’ll win outright; otherwise she will head to a runoff in November. 

Heading into Tuesday night, election officials and candidates warned that results might not be known until later in the week. Wide-open races for governor and two Congressional districts, a new law allowing counting of ballots postmarked by Election Day and an unexpected ballot printing error in one of the state’s largest counties all contributed to general uncertainty heading into election night. 

Ballots are printed with barcodes that can be read by a machine to identify which races are on a particular ballot. In Clackamas County, about two-thirds of the ballots returned had blurred barcodes. 

Bipartisan teams of election workers have to copy the defective ballots by hand onto paper ballots that can be read by the county’s tallying machines. Secretary of State Shemia Fagan, who visited Clackamas County with other state election officials Tuesday to watch the ballot copying process, said in a statement that the county may be slower to report results on Tuesday. 

“We are confident they will report accurate results,” Fagan said Tuesday afternoon.

By late Tuesday night, Fagan was still confident in the accuracy of the results, but frustrated by Clackamas County’s slow pace. The county had not shared any results as of 11 p.m. Tuesday. Fagan said she and county clerks had offered in recent weeks to provide staff to help process ballots, and she was waiting to hear from the county what she could do to speed up results.

“While I am confident that the process they are following is secure, transparent and the results will be accurate, the county’s reporting delays tonight are unacceptable,” Fagan said. “Voters have done their jobs, and now it’s time for Clackamas County Elections to do theirs.”

Governor

Kotek proclaimed victory shortly before 9 p.m. Tuesday, telling supporters at a Portland campaign event that state Treasurer Tobias Read called to concede. 

If former House Republican Leader Christine Drazan’s lead holds over Bob Tiernan, a former chair of the Oregon Republican Party, two caucus leaders who sparred in the House will face each other in the general election. 

After depleting their resources in primary races, they’ll face a formidable and well-funded foe in Betsy Johnson, a longtime moderate Democratic state senator from northwest Oregon who mounted an independent campaign for governor. 

“Tonight, the political extremes have chosen,” Johnson said in a statement. “Tina Kotek is more Kate Brown than Kate Brown and Christine Drazan wants to take away a woman’s right to choose. I know we can get our mojo back, but not with the same old politics of the far left and far right. The biggest change Oregon can make this year is putting the people back in charge with an independent governor loyal only to Oregonians, not the political extremes.”

Johnson has almost $5.4 million in her campaign bank account, after raising almost $8.4 million over the past year. She’s backed by Nike co-founder Phil Knight, who gave her campaign $1.75 million so far, and large contributions from Oregon businesses including logging equipment company the Papé Group, a logging equipment company.

Johnson must gather about 24,000 signatures from Oregon voters by Aug. 30 to make it onto the November ballot as a non-affiliated candidate. 

Kotek told the Capital Chronicle her nomination shows that Oregon voters want to continue moving forward. 

“People know what’s at stake,” she said. “They’re looking for leadership to solve problems, and there’s a lot at stake in November. Whoever comes out of the Republican primaries is going to be conservative. Senator Betsy Johnson, I believe, is a conservative. This is going to be about moving our state forward and not backward, and that’s what these results are about tonight.”

There were 15 names on the Democratic ballot for governor, but the race had essentially been a two-person duel between Kotek and Read since former New York Times columnist Nick Kristof was ruled ineligible to run because he hadn’t lived in Oregon long enough to meet residency requirements. 

Kotek, the longest-serving House speaker in state history, has been the favorite to win. She racked up endorsements from progressive advocacy groups, labor unions and a long list of current and former elected officials.

She also led the money race, bringing in almost $2.4 million, in large part because of large contributions from labor unions. Kotek also spent almost all the money her campaign raised and has only about $10,000 available, according to campaign finance records filed with the state Elections Division.

Kotek’s campaign manager, Meghan Cavanaugh, sought to lower expectations in a memo shared with Oregon reporters Tuesday. Cavanaugh noted that Read won statewide twice and started the race with a fundraising lead. 

Read, who lives in Beaverton, served in the Oregon House for 10 years before he was elected treasurer in 2016. He positioned himself as a political outsider and a more moderate alternative to the brand of Portland progressivism represented by Kotek.

Read raised just more than $2 million over the past two years and spent most of it. He still has two years left in his term as treasurer. 

Republican ballots featured 19 candidates and no clear frontrunner. Drazan, who served as the House Republican leader from 2019 to 2021, led with 24% of votes after initial results on Tuesday. Only Tiernan came close, with 19%. 

Drazan has largely avoided some of the cultural issues that preoccupied others in her party, including saying in a recent debate that she would veto bills that expanded abortion rights but wouldn’t proactively seek to restrict abortion as governor. She also acknowledged the validity of the 2020 presidential election and condemned the 2021 attack on the U.S. capitol. 

She leads the Republican field in fundraising with more than $2.5 million this year, but she spent nearly all of it and has about $50,000 left. 

“We eagerly await the release of additional results, but if current trends hold, Christine Drazan will be the Republican nominee for governor of Oregon,” campaign manager Trey Rosser said in a statement late Tuesday. “She looks forward to the opportunity to share her vision for our state with Oregonians this November.”

Several candidates, including Sandy Mayor Stan Pulliam, former Alsea School District superintendent Marc Thielman and West Linn publisher Bridget Barton, leaned into Trumpian populism and culture war issues. 

Pulliam falsely claimed the 2020 election was fraudulent and declared a “war on woke,” targeting policies in the Salem-Keizer School District that support transgender students. A week before the election, Barton sued the Oregon Education Department to block a policy that would provide menstrual products in student restrooms. 

Tiernan, on a Zoom call from a hotel in Lake Oswego, said he wasn’t ready to concede yet. He said he’s dedicated to working on solving problems whether he’s the nominee or a runner-up. 

“I’m still optimistic,” he said. “I have a tough hill to climb, but I’m definitely in a solid second, and I can see the first place right in front of me. So let’s see what happens.

Congress

Three of Oregon’s six Congressional districts drew most of the attention this year, but it wasn’t either of the two open seats that had national pundits and reporters refreshing Oregon election results. 

Schrader, the most conservative member of the state’s Democratic delegation, had institutional backing from House Democrats. But his ties to the pharmaceutical industry and history of blocking some of the Biden administration’s policy goals left many Democrats in the district looking for a replacement. 

Jamie McLeod-Skinner, a consultant and emergency response coordinator from Terrebonne, north of Redmond, built a following in Deschutes County during a 2018 run in the 2nd Congressional District and over the subsequent few years. 

With the central Oregon county now in the 5th District, a 70% vote for McLeod-Skinner in Deschutes County boosted her to a 20-point lead over Schrader in early returns. Clackamas County, Schrader’s home county, had not reported results by Tuesday evening. 

McLeod-Skinner told the Capital Chronicle she wasn’t ready to declare victory yet, but she was glad to see the early results. 

“Deschutes County really showed up for us, and Multnomah County as well,” she said. 

Lori Chavez-DeRemer, the former mayor of Happy Valley, is the Republican nominee. 

In the 4th Congressional District, Labor Commissioner Val Hoyle has won the Democratic primary. Hoyle, who represented the Eugene area in the House for eight years before she was elected labor commissioner in 2018, announced her candidacy hours after Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Oregon, said he would retire last fall.

Other local elected officials soon bowed out, and Hoyle faced a field including Corvallis School Board Chair Sami Al-Abdrabbuh, community organizer and attorney Doyle Canning and Airbnb executive Andrew Kalloch.

Republican Alek Skarlatos, a former Army National Guardsman who unsuccessfully challenged DeFazio in 2020, was unopposed in the GOP primary. 

The 4th District is better for Democrats now than it was during DeFazio’s term, but both parties are paying special attention to it as Republicans seek to win a majority in Congress. 

Salinas, a state representative from Lake Oswego, won the Democratic nomination in the 6th Congressional district despite more than $13 million in outside spending benefitting Carrick Flynn, a political newcomer.

“Obviously, these are not the results we were hoping to see tonight,” Flynn tweeted around 9:30 p.m. “I congratulate State Representative Andrea Salinas on her victory and offer my full support.”

Mike Erickson, a Lake Oswego businessman and former Congressional hopeful, was leading the Republican field. 

Oregon Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oregon Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Les Zaitz for questions: [email protected] Follow Oregon Capital Chronicle on Facebook and Twitter.