Nick Kristof speaks Thursday, Feb. 17, at his campaign headquarters in downtown Portland. He said the Oregon Supreme Court’s decision is “the end of the road” for now for his run for governor. (Alex Baumhardt/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

With Nick Kristof out, it’s a two-way race in the Democratic primary for governor – and if Oregon’s 40-year history of only electing Democrats to the top job continues, Tina Kotek or Tobias Read will be the next person living in the governor’s mansion. 

The Oregon Supreme Court’s ruling Thursday to uphold Secretary of State Shemia Fagan’s decision to keep Kristof off the ballot means Kotek, Read and roughly a dozen lesser-known Democrats will duke it out in the May primary. Other candidates have until March 8 to enter the race.

During a news conference Thursday, Kristof said he’ll support the other Democratic candidates as they work to fix problems he cares about, but it’s too early for him to think about endorsing one of his former competitors. 

“I got word this morning, and then I had to figure out what to say this morning,” he said. “My phone has been buzzing away and I haven’t really had a chance to look at messages or think about it, so I’ll have to digest this and figure that out.” 

Kristof made his short-lived campaign a referendum on how Democrats who have run the state for decades have handled homelessness and drug addiction, particularly in the Portland area. He sought to cast Kotek, who represented north and northeast Portland in the House for 15 years and served as House speaker for nine, as a symbol of an incompetent political establishment.

One of his most recent campaign transactions, last Friday, was a nearly $14,000 payment to a California-based opposition research firm for something called the “Kotek Project Initiation” in state campaign finance records. 

Pollster John Horvick said it will be interesting to see if Kotek, Read or other candidates try to pick up Kristof’s message about homelessness and addiction.

So far, Kotek has focused on her accomplishments in the Legislature, which include spearheading efforts to create more affordable housing by reducing local zoning restrictions, increasing the minimum wage and spending more money on public schools. Read, meanwhile, has spent his campaign talking about economic development, mandating Covid vaccines and ensuring children are in the classroom. 

“Kristof was going to try to make this race in part a referendum on the Democrats and how they’ve managed policies to really support or harm those who are most vulnerable, particularly with homelessness and, and that voice is now gone,” Horvick said. “I’m curious to see other candidates respond to that. Did they try to fill that space?”

Kotek said in a short statement that she hopes Kristof will remain engaged in working to help Oregonians.

“Nick Kristof has long written about pressing issues facing Oregonians and his voice will continue to be important as we tackle Oregon’s biggest issues,” she said. “I look forward to working with him as a fellow Democrat.”

In his own lengthy statement, Read asked Kristof’s supporters to support him. 

“This is now a two-person race for the Democratic nomination for governor, and there is a clear choice,” he said. “Continue the status quo in Salem or vote for Tobias Read, someone who isn’t afraid to confront the urgent challenges we face in Oregon.”

In the short term, Kristof’s exit helps Kotek, said Pacific University professor Jim Moore, who studies Oregon politics. Both candidates focused on housing, and with Kristof gone, Kotek can be the main candidate talking about housing in the Democratic primary, he said. 

But Kristof’s campaign cash could still play a major role in the primary, Moore said. He raised $2.7 million, more than twice as much as either Kotek or Read, and he still has about $1.6 million available. 

“He’s got a sizable chunk of change there, and if he wants to use it in the race to favor one or the other, or save it until the general election or do whatever he’s gonna do with it, there’s there’s potential there that he could play a major role with just the funding,” Moore said. 

Kristof said he didn’t know what he was going to do with the money and he needed to review potential legal issues. He refunded a handful of donations after Fagan disqualified him, and his fundraising pace slowed over the past month. 

He has 10 days to make changes to his campaign bank account, said Deborah Scroggin, director of the state Election Division. 

He can decide to run for another office and repurpose his campaign account, he can give the money to other political action committees or he can return it to donors and close his bank account, Scroggin said. He can’t use campaign funds for personal expenses.

Betsy Johnson, a former Democrat who resigned from the state Senate late last year to run for governor unaffiliated with any party, said she was disappointed that Kristof can’t run. She noted that nearly three weeks elapsed between the end of legal arguments and the court decision. 

“Given the time the court took to render their decision this must not have been quite as simple as Secretary of State Fagan originally stated,” she said. “This decision is further evidence that the two-party system is not working for Oregon.”

Conventional wisdom suggests that Johnson might be relieved to have Kristof out of the race, Horvick said. She’s positioning herself as the moderate, independent choice between the extreme left and extreme right, and having Kotek and a Trumpy Republican in the general election would help her make that distinction more clearly to voters. 

“Kristof was arguing about the failures of Democratic leadership in the state,” Horvick said. “She’s doing the same. On paper, he would have been a more difficult challenger for Johnson because they’re trying to fill up that same space, and so this gives Johnson a cleaner argument to make to voters.” 

Kristof said he hasn’t thought about what’s next for him, beyond taking some time to “unwind” with his wife in Lincoln City or along a trail.

Casey Kulla, a Democratic Yamhill County commissioner who also farms vegetables and cannabis, has repeatedly encouraged Kristof to run for another office, and reached out to him again Thursday morning.

Kulla was the first elected official to file to run for governor more than a year ago, but he shelved those plans last month to run for labor commissioner, a nonpartisan statewide position overseeing businesses and employees.

There are plenty of options, Kulla said. Democrats need a strong candidate to compete in a redrawn House district where Republicans hold a slight advantage in voter registration. The seat is now held by state Rep. Ron Noble, R-McMinnville, who is running for Congress. Two seats on the Yamhill County Commission are up for election, including the one Kulla isn’t seeking re-election to because of his run for labor commissioner, and Oregon’s new 6th Congressional District contains Yamhill County. 

“We have what’s forecast to be the most expensive Congress race primary in history,” Kulla said. “And so I’m like, ‘Hey, you’re good. You have connections, you have ideas, let’s do this.’” 

Kristof’s history of writing about international affairs and his national profile seem perfect for Congress, Kulla said. Yamhill County also needs local solutions to issues like homelessness, public education and economic recovery from Covid that Kristof focused on during his campaign, he said. 

Moore said he expects Kristof will run, or at least consider running, for statewide office again. 

“I think he’s deeply invested in the state and deeply wants to help to make it better,” he said. “And he sees that the way to do that is being in one of these statewide offices.”

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