In just about a week, voter pamphlets and ballots will start arriving in mailboxes around Oregon, in advance of the May 17 primary—and if early polling is any indication, the race to become Oregon’s next governor is absolutely wide-open, on both the Republican and Democratic sides.
(Of course, more than 40 percent of Oregon’s voters can’t weigh in on who should be the major party nominees, because of the state’s closed primary system, but that’s another story.)
Still, the widespread uncertainty of this year’s primaries helps explain the noticeable uptick in television advertising in the last few weeks. Cord-cutters miss out on all of this, but ads that run during the news, evening game shows, and daytime talk shows, still reach a reliable core of older voters, who are statistically most likely to return their primary ballots.
So it’s useful to take a spin through the ads that are in rotation, to get a better sense of how the leading candidates are pitching themselves to voters. (Note: One major candidate is not covered here, because she has no ads up yet. Former State Sen. Betsy Johnson of Scappoose is running as an Independent and doesn’t need to worry about a primary; she’s presumably hoarding campaign cash to unleash a barrage of ads in the fall.)
Tina Kotek, D-Portland
The former House Speaker is up with an ad that goes straight to the very liberal core of the Oregon Democratic primary electorate, checking off progressive priorities that she spearheaded during a decade-plus in Salem, including an increased minimum wage, expanded background checks for those who want to purchase a gun and paid sick leave. (That's separate from Oregon's paid family leave program, which as The Oregonian reported in a detailed story in December, is well behind schedule and has received little oversight since its passage. Kotek worked on both initiatives, as speaker of the House.)
Kotek also hits hard on her support for reproductive rights, which are not presently under threat in Oregon—in fact, the right to seek an abortion is enshrined into state law here, and insurers are required to cover the cost of the procedure. But it’s shaping up as a huge issue nationally, should the Supreme Court invalidate Roe v. Wade, and is expected to galvanize progressive voters.
The lasting impression of Kotek’s spot is of unfinished business; she’s asking voters for more time to implement fixes for seemingly intractable issues, including housing and climate changes. Conspicuously absent from her ad are virtually any images of the problems in her hometown (no tent-lined streets here—that comes later, mostly in the Republican ads).
Tobias Read, D-Portland
Sitting state treasurer Tobias Read stakes out markedly different territory from Kotek’s in his current ad, and the strategy isn’t without some risks, given that primary voters are often the truest believers. His spot, though, is clearly crafted to appeal to disaffected Democrats, who have enough of a Trump hangover that they won’t vote for a Republican, but also aren’t happy with the status quo.
Where Kotek avoids any spotlight on the trash, encampments, and violent crime that have become increasingly visible in Portland since the pandemic, Read opens with them. In voiceover, he pledges to “clean up the streets” and “hire more officers to stop gun violence.” It’s all in keeping with Read’s efforts to portray himself as a change agent, though he has been in state government about as long as Kotek, his chief rival for the nomination.
Read—one of only a handful of serious contenders who had school-aged children during the pandemic—then pivots to a focus on family issues, including affordable childcare, universal pre-kindergarten, and better job training programs. He’s aiming right for the vote of parents who haven’t forgotten pandemic disruptions, a strategy that worked well in Virginia’s off-year gubernatorial election in 2021.
Christine Drazan, R-Oregon City
Drazan, who only recently resigned her position as House Minority Leader, was Kotek’s foil in Salem, so it stands to reason that her ad, too, seeks to put plenty of distance between her and the Democrats who’ve been solely in charge of the state for years.
Her most recent ad opens with a critique of public safety, including a veiled swipe at Gov. Kate Brown’s decision to commute the sentences of a handful of criminals convicted as juveniles, and Portland City Council’s decision to shift around funding for its police force.
She also signals that she’ll be making Portland’s current crossroads into a statewide issue, should she advance to the general election, a strategy crafted both to appeal to suburban voters concerned about the city’s future and rural voters who fear so-called “Portland creep.” “And if Portland politicians won’t enforce the law, as governor, I will,” she finishes.
Stan Pulliam, R-Sandy
Pulliam is a curious candidate. His biggest headline to date in the race has come from Willamette Week’s disclosure that he and his wife were briefly involved in Portland’s swinger community. And yet, of all the candidates, the Sandy Mayor is the one who is doubling down the hardest on the culture wars, as though what he’s really gunning for is a slot on outrage radio.
In the first of two 15 second spots, Pulliam rails against critical race theory, a nuanced academic concept that recognizes structural and systemic racism at the center of society. He also criticizes COVID-19 vaccine mandates in schools, despite the fact that not a single public school district in Oregon has moved forward with this requirement.
In the second, Pulliam pledges not to “allow transgender athletes to compete in girls sports,” another hot issue in right-wing media that’s not necessarily top of mind for everyday voters in Oregon. He finishes off with a pitch to—you guessed it—parents, saying, “Because my girls shouldn’t have to play against boys, and neither should yours."
Bob Tiernan, R-Lake Oswego
Tiernan, a former head of the Oregon Republican Party and former state legislator, has an old-school Republican focus on the economic bottom line in his current ad, as well as a well-timed bleep over a barnyard expletive as he turns off a prop TV with a split screen of Kotek and Brown. (The commercial’s title is “Bull.”)
Speaking directly to the camera, Tiernan—a former president of Grocery Outlet—touts his business background, and promises that he’s not like career politicians (B-roll footage shows him in business-like settings, talking to his literal doppelganger.)
There’s also a blink-and-you'll-miss-it shot of a chaotic clash between law enforcement and demonstrators, underscored by Tiernan’s promise to “fight the radical left” before a segue into a pledge to cut taxes and regulations on businesses.
Bud Pierce, R-Salem
Pierce, a Salem oncologist, has never held political office, but has high-ish name recognition after his 2018 run against Brown. His campaign posted its first ad on Monday, a late-to-the-game entry that came after Pierce himself loaned the campaign $500,000.
The ad is a bit of an amalgam of all the other Republican ads so far, ticking off a litany of everything that voters might be peeved about, from homelessness to crime to high taxes, though Pierce is the only one to nod to former President Trump’s incendiary narrative about a stolen 2020 election and vote-by-mail fraud, when he dings “broken elections” over a shot of someone mailing a ballot. He’s also fairly au courant, with a quick critique of rising gas prices.
Pierce then takes a quick swipe at his opponents—is that supposed to be Drazan’s blurred out face in the background as he criticizes negative political insiders—before a big finish, presenting himself as a true conservative stalwart who can make Oregon “sane and stable” again.