SALEM - When Oregonians go to the polls in about a year, they won’t see their current governor on their ballot for only the second time this century.

Gov. Kate Brown can’t run for a third term, leaving Democrats with a wide-open primary for the first time since 2002. 

Both parties’ contests are just beginning to take shape with nearly eight months to go before the May 17 primary.

The race for governor occurs as party voter registrations continue to shift, with more Oregonians preferring to list themselves as non-affiliated. More than a third of the state’s close to 3 million registered voters can’t participate in closed primaries, as close to 1 million are registered as non-affiliated voters and another 200,000 belong to minor parties. Democrats are still the single largest group, with more than 1 million registered voters, while Republicans have 730,000.

State Treasurer Tobias Read launched his campaign with a video focused on vaccination mandates last week, joining House Speaker Tina Kotek and a group of lesser-known candidates in the Democratic primary. 

Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum, Multnomah County chair Deborah Kafoury and New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof are among several prominent candidates believed to be mulling campaigns, while Secretary of State Shemia Fagan and Labor Commissioner Val Hoyle have said they’re not running.

More than a dozen Republicans have also filed, most notably 2016 GOP nominee Bud Pierce, a Salem physician. Knute Buehler, a former state representative from Bend who lost to Brown in 2018, and retiring state Rep. Bill Post, R-Keizer, declined to run. 

Pacific University professor Jim Moore, who studies Oregon politics, said candidates have just a few more weeks to get in the race if they want to win. 

“If candidates have not declared their intent by the end of November, beginning of December, it’s too late,” he said. “They simply have run out of time to raise enough money to get those complex messages out there.” 

In 2002, the last time Oregon had an open race for governor, a pack of three strong Democratic candidates and three strong Republican candidates began traveling the state in the summer of 2001, meeting voters at forums in their communities. Moore said he can’t see that happening this cycle.

Kotek, who announced her campaign on Sept. 1, is the early front-runner and quickly secured endorsements from Hoyle and an influential trade union. After Hoyle and Melissa Unger, the executive director of Service Employees International Union Local 503, ruled out gubernatorial campaigns, Kotek appears most likely to secure union backing.

But she also faces the same challenge that most legislators encounter when they run for statewide office: few Oregonians know who she is. Because Kotek has been speaker for five terms, more people have heard of her than rank-and-file lawmakers, but she’s still not well-known statewide, Moore said. 

“In fact, the people who do know her are probably going to be Republicans who hate what she stands for, rather than the Democrats that she has to convince to get to the primary,” he said. 

Read, and Rosenblum if she enters the race, also aren’t particularly well-known to voters, but they have the advantage of having appeared on statewide ballots before, he said. Read is less likely to get much support from public employee unions because of his work on changes to the Public Employee Retirement System, but he’s a strong fundraiser on his own. He has $293,000 in the bank right now, more than any other candidate in the race.

Pollster John Horvick said he expects business money to line up behind Read. Kristof, the Times columnist, could be a wild card. 

He’s not well known with the general public, but is among likely voters – especially in the Democratic primary – and national media are likely to cover one of their own running for office. 

The race also includes Casey Kulla, a Yamhill County commissioner and farmer, and several political newcomers. With at least three serious candidates expected in the race, Horvick said candidates won’t try to play for a majority of the primary vote, just enough to get to the general. 

“Moderate suburban folks who maybe sometimes vote Republican in the general election, that’s one lane,” he said. “Your hardcore environmental social justice candidate might be another lane. You might be able to win with 35% and not need a majority.”

Whether Brown will get involved in the race remains a question. Her political adviser, Chris Pair, said she hasn’t endorsed in primaries in the past and will make considerations at a later date.

Oregon hasn’t elected a Republican governor since Vic Atiyeh won re-election in 1982, and whoever wins the Republican nomination in May faces a steep uphill battle to reach the governor’s mansion. 

However long the odds Horvick said there could be an opportunity for Republicans this year. Nationally, the party that holds Congress and the White House tends to do worse in midterm elections, and polling shows a majority of Oregonians are unhappy with both the state’s direction and Brown as governor.

His firm’s most recent poll, conducted over the end of August and early September, found that just over one-third of respondents thought the state was on the right track, and a record high of 59% disapproved of Brown. Those factors, paired with the national political environment, could aid Republicans, especially considering that Oregon’s gubernatorial races are typically closer than presidential races.

Horvick said Republicans will still struggle.

“Democrats are just pretty unlikely to vote for a Republican and Republicans are unlikely to vote for a Democrat, almost independent of where the conditions are,” he said. “Because of this, Democrats just have the numbers baked in. It’s really difficult to get over that hump.”

Polls show that most voters think Democrats have the upper hand on almost every issue, including traditional Republican talking points like taxes and budgeting. The only area where Republicans have an advantage is crime. 

“If I were trying to talk to Republican candidates, I’d say you’ve got to make the issue about Kate Brown, you’ve got to make it about crime, and you make it about Portland,” Horvick said. 

So far, Republican candidates have highlighted Portland’s 2020 protests-turned-riots. Pierce, who campaigned as a moderate in 2016, launched his campaign this time with video of fires and looting on Portland streets and regularly shares news articles about individual crimes. 

Between Pierce in 2016, 2018 nominee Knute Buehler and former basketball player Chris Dudley, who came within one point of beating Gov. John Kitzhaber, most recent Republican nominees for governor have come from the moderate wing of their party. But neither Horvick nor Moore see a path to nomination for a moderate Republican this time. 

“I think the one to do it would probably be Bud Pierce,” Horvick said. “But if he runs in that moderate lane, Republican voters would ask him would be ‘Well, you did that before and you lost, so why would we go down that path again?’” 

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.