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Thanks to Sen. Betsy Johnson and journalist Nick Kristof, Oregon is on the verge of the most interesting governor’s race in decades.

Both are Democrats, although Johnson plans to shed that party and run as an independent in 2022. What differentiates them from others, and makes their candidacies so intriguing, is both seem to have a sense of purpose. They are not simply seeking the next rung on the political ladder.

Each has roots in rural Oregon. Both worry about the future of our state and grasp the need to bring Oregonians together. Both are pragmatists, instead of being tied to political ideology. Indeed, the independent-minded Johnson frequently is accused of being a Democrat in name only. Kristof, who has all-but-announced his candidacy, was considered a liberal leaning columnist yet not someone who could be pigeonholed.

Each is giving up good gigs to run. Kristof has resigned from the New York Times, relinquishing his column with its global reach. Johnson, of Scappoose, is not seeking re-election to the Senate, where she is co-chair of the Legislature’s budget-writing committee and one of the most influential people in state government.

And each faces long odds of becoming governor.

At the moment, most Oregonians have more pressing issues on their mind than the 2022 gubernatorial election – their household economic situation, their children’s schooling, their health amidst the pandemic. For potential candidates, however, the next few weeks are crucial. They must jump in by early December to have sufficient time to raise the $5 million to $10 million that psephologist Jim Moore says will be needed for an effective campaign in 2022.

To help make sense of how the governor’s race is unfolding, this week I turned to Moore, a political science professor at Pacific University and an expert in psephology (the study of elections).

“It’s nice to have unusual candidates instead of the same-old, same-old,” Moore said. “This is the most wide-open race in 20 years, and that one 20 years ago was so fun. The three Democrats and three Republicans went around the state together and had open forums and things. We’re not going to see that this time, but that was a good one.”

Despite covering that 2002 race as a journalist, I even have trouble recalling all those candidates. As a refresher, the Democrats were Ted Kulongoski, former Supreme Court justice and attorney general; Jim Hill, former state treasurer; and Bev Stein, who chaired the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners. The Republicans were former legislator Kevin Mannix; Jack Roberts, state labor commissioner; and Ron Saxton, businessman and former chair of the Portland School Board.

Kulongoski defeated Mannix and Libertarian Tom Cox in the general election. It was redemption for Kulongoski, whom Gov. Vic Atiyeh trounced in the 1982 gubernatorial election.

It also was a lesson in how an impressive resume by itself is inadequate to woo voters. Oregonians want to feel a connection with the candidates, or at least with their party.

Because Gov. Kate Brown is term-limited from running again, the 2022 field is wide open.

The leading Democrats at this point would be House Speaker Tina Kotek of Portland and State Treasurer Tobias Read of Beaverton. Read is term-limited, so it’s up or out for him. Kotek could run for the Legislature again but she already is the longest-serving House speaker in Oregon history, and other representatives are expected to challenge for that position.

The best-known Republican probably is Salem oncologist Bud Pierce, who unsuccessfully ran against Brown in 2016. Sandy Mayor Stan Pulliam also is making noise with his fundraising so far.

No candidate has yet hit $1 million. And in a wide-open election, money likely will determine the outcome.

“Raising money is crucial because basically everyone has to introduce themselves to the electorate, even the statewide Democrats and people like Bud Pierce, and especially people like Nick Kristof and Betsy Johnson and even Tina Kotek,” Moore said.

In our polarized state and nation, party affiliation and ideology have an outsized effect on voters’ choices. Oregonians today are far less inclined to cross party lines in the way that Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber sometimes picked up Republican votes and that Republican Dennis Richardson was elected secretary of state with the backing of some Democrats.

The conventional thinking remains that our next governor will be a Portland-area Democrat, powered into office by the public employee unions and their allies. It is almost impossible for an independent or third-party candidate to win. Yet if anyone can, it’s Johnson.

Kotek likely fended off some potential Democratic candidates by being the first to announce her candidacy. Johnson’s candidacy has a similar effect, claiming the middle-of-the-road position.

Her hope rests on the party primaries next May – that Democrats and Republicans each will nominate candidates at the extreme edges, making Oregonians more willing to consider a moderate alternative.

“Her problem is, does she look forward or does she harken back to, ‘I’m a Democrat or a moderate Republican the way things used to be,’ which is not really probably going to generate that many votes,” Moore said. “She’s got to look forward and do more than what she did on her declaration statement, which was those liberal Democrats will just keep going and spending us into the ground and those Trumpist Republicans are nuts.

“She’s got to have more than that.”

As for Kristof, he must overcome the carpetbagger label. He technically might meet the Oregon residency requirement, but opponents likely would challenge that in court.

More difficult is defining his capabilities to serve as governor and convincing voters that he has remained a true Oregonian while a globe-trotting, Pulitzer Prize-winning, New York-based journalist.

He grew up outside Yamhill and now lives there. His forming a campaign committee is the latest indication that he’s going to run.

Kristof has written thoughtfully about the problems afflicting rural and urban communities in Oregon and elsewhere. But his messages are contained in newspaper columns and books, nothing that easily fits on a bumper sticker or is easily explained as a policy initiative.

I keep thinking back to a casual conversation I had with a friend this summer. The social, legal and political turmoil in Portland had devastated that city’s reputation and knocked out Mayor Ted Wheeler as a potential gubernatorial candidate. I wondered whether those well-documented problems had altered Oregon’s traditional political dynamics.

“Can anyone from the Portland area win the governorship?” I pondered.

My friend responded, “Can anyone not from Portland win?”

Dick Hughes, who writes the weekly Capital Chatter column, has been covering the Oregon political scene since 1976. Contact him at TheHughesisms@Gmail.com, Facebook.com/Hughesisms, YouTube.com/DickHughes or @DickHughes.

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