With Kristof Out, What’s Next for the Oregon Governor’s Race?

Parsing out how the Oregon Supreme Court decision will affect the other candidates in the months ahead

By Julia Silverman February 17, 2022

Former New York Times columnist Nick Kristof addresses the media on Thursday, February 17, after the Oregon Supreme Court rejected his request to overturn the Secretary of State’s decision that he’s ineligible to run for governor due to residency requirements.

Former New York Times columnist Nick Kristof is ineligible to run for governor because of the state’s residency requirements, the Oregon Supreme Court unanimously ruled on Thursday when it rejected Kristof's request to change the decision of the Secretary of State, throwing an already-raucous gubernatorial race into even further upheaval.

The Oregon Constitution requires that a candidate for governor have been a resident for the state for at least three years, and Kristof did not meet that standard, the court found.

Kristof’s family moved to Oregon when he was 12, and he owns a farm in Yamhill County. But he only moved his family to the state full-time in 2020, after voting and paying taxes in New York state for decades. 

He took the news stoically during a somewhat anticlimactic press conference at his campaign headquarters in downtown Portland, saying he wouldn’t try to challenge the court’s decision, had no current plans to run for a different office, and wasn’t certain yet what would become of his prodigious fundraising haul of about $2.75 million.

Kristof, who resigned his position at the Times to enter the Oregon race, also had no immediate answer as to whether he would endorse one of the Democrats left in the race. The two major Democratic candidates left standing (among 15 declared) are former House Speaker Tina Kotek, from North Portland, and Oregon State Treasurer Tobias Read, who lives in Washington County. 

Given the seismic shifts in the race, here’s a look at the standing of the key players, with three months to go until the May primary.

Secretary of State Shemia Fagan held a valedictory press conference an hour after Kristof’s on Thursday, at which she pointedly noted that Kristof’s earlier contention that her decision to challenge his candidacy was politically motivated was “a baseless attack” which she said indirectly fueled general mistrust in a democratic system and increasing harassment targeted at elected workers. “Some people did cross a line here,” Fagan said. “This decision was about treating everyone equally under the rules. Baseless attacks that the decision was corrupt, politically motivated, or biased were wrong." 

Though his campaign has struggled to attract the kind of media attention and endorsements that both Kristof and Kotek have enjoyed, Read is likely to benefit from Kristof’s exit from the race, especially after staking out a position closer to the center than Kotek’s, particularly via calls for quicker action on curbing homeless encampments.

Read's campaign sent out an immediate release after the Supreme Court’s announcement, suggesting an attempt to position him as only non-political-insider left in the Democratic side, despite his years in Salem. “We welcome his supporters to join our team, because we share many of the same priorities and views,” his campaign wrote. “And we all want someone who will challenge the status quo in Salem.” (As for Kotek, who is likely to pull in the lion’s share of donations from the public employee unions that often bankroll Democratic campaigns in Oregon, she was more circumspect, tweeting only that Kristof’s voice, “will continue to be important as we tackle Oregon’s biggest issues. I look forward to working with him as a fellow Democrat.”)

Kristof’s candidacy, given his splashy media presence and big donors, might have helped keep some other high-profile Democrats—paging Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury—out of the race. Technically, there is still time to declare one's candidacy, of course, but in practice, that will be difficult given advantage of the months-long jump on fundraising and bulking up of campaign staff by Read and Kotek. Meanwhile, Democrat-turned-unaffiliated candidate Betsy Johnson, a former state senator from Scappoose, is the only person running so far to have outraised Kristof, and is left to reckon with the fact that the centrist/moderate vote in the primary is no longer likely to be split between Kristof and Read. That could make it trickier for Johnson to draw sharp contrasts between her and the Democratic nominee statewide should Read emerge as the victor in May.

Under Oregon law, Kristof now has 10 days to figure out what to do about all the money his campaign has raised. He could convert it to a different committee should he decide to run for another political office, donate it to other candidates in other races, or refund it to his donors. (Kristof was not directly asked whether he planned to run to represent the new Sixth Congressional District, which includes Yamhill County, but has said he is committed to life on the family farm and working for positive change in Oregon—potentially a relief to the current Democratic field, which includes State Reps. Andrea Salina and Teresa Alonso Leon, as well as former Multnomah County Commissioner Loretta Smith.)

Either way, it’s likely that the high-profile names who contributed to Kristof’s candidacy, including Angelina Jolie, both Bill Gates and ex-wife Melinda French Gates, and LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman, are probably rethinking the five- and six-figure checks they wrote over the last few months.

All this doesn’t mean much for the Republican field, who have been distracted by plenty of turmoil of their own, from Willamette Week’s reporting that Sandy Mayor Stan Pulliam, who has presented himself as a champion for family values, was briefly involved with a swingers’ group in Portland to the entry into the race of blast-from-the-past anti-tax crusader Bill Sizemore.

And finally, let’s pour one out for Yamhill County itself, which for a brief shining moment had two credible statewide candidates for governor in Kristof and current Yamhill County Commissioner Casey Kulla, who pulled out of the race a few weeks back and decided to run for state labor commissioner instead. And then there were none.


Filed under