The Republican primary for governor was too close to call as of 11:30 p.m. Tuesday night.
Former House Republican Leader Christine Drazan was running slightly ahead of Bob Tiernan and well ahead of 17 other GOP gubernatorial hopefuls for a spot on the November general election ballot.
“If trends continue, I will be the Republican nominee as the next governor of the state of Oregon,” said Drazan just before 11 p.m. on Tuesday. She said she had hoped she’d be able to declare herself the winner, but that without final numbers — Clackamas County had yet to report any votes at that point — she could not yet claim victory.
Bob Tiernan, who was about 5 percentage points behind Drazan at the end of the night, did not concede the race. Tiernan is a former state lawmaker and the former CEO of Grocery Outlet.
“Let’s wait and see how this election ends up,” he told reporters during a late press conference Tuesday night. “I’m still optimistic. I have a tough hill to climb, but I’m definitely in a solid second and I can see the first place right in front of me.”
It’s been decades since Oregon had a Republican governor — Gov. Vic Atiyeh last held the job in 1987 — but Republicans have more optimism than usual. With much of the electorate believing the state is headed in the wrong direction, coupled with what is expected to be a midterm election favoring the GOP, many are hopeful this could be the year a Republican takes the state’s highest office.
And Republican party leaders have one more reason to imagine 2022 could be different: Former Democratic state Sen. Betsy Johnson is attempting to gather enough signatures to appear on the November ballot as an unaffiliated candidate for governor. Republicans hope her candidacy could help propel their nominee to Mahonia Hall, the governor’s mansion in Salem if she siphons enough votes from the Democratic contender.
Out of the 19 Republican candidates hoping for the job, Drazan was the only one who was elected to the state Legislature this decade. Drazan carved out a reputation as a savvy negotiator, willing to go head-to-head with the Democrats who controlled the Legislature. She led members of her caucus on a walkout to Reno, Nevada, in order to block a climate change bill that was a Democratic priority and she managed, for a short while, to get an equal footing with the Democrats on a redistricting committee.
“Tina and Betsy have helped Kate Brown implement a political agenda that has failed our students. It has undermined our police,” Drazan said Tuesday night. “It has exacerbated the crisis in our streets. We cannot allow it to continue.”
Drazan is a former executive director of the Cultural Advocacy Coalition, an organization that lobbies on behalf of art, culture, heritage and the humanities, and she also worked in the state Capitol as chief of staff to former Oregon House Speaker Mark Simmons. Drazan grew up in Klamath Falls and was one of several candidates to receive the endorsement of the anti-abortion group Oregon Right to Life. She pulled in more than $2.5 million in contributions.
Tiernan is a former two-term state House member who helped push through several tough-on-crime ballot measures in the 1990s, including Measure 11, which created mandatory sentences for some violent crimes. The Lake Oswego resident was the president and chief operating officer of Grocery Outlet for four years. He fueled his campaign by contributing about $700,000 of his own money. Another $600,000 was donated from the bargain chain outlet he oversaw.
Other top contenders in the GOP field were Salem oncologist Dr. Bud Pierce, Sandy Mayor Stan Pulliam, conservative writer Bridget Barton and Medford businesswoman Jessica Gomez.
For the first time in an Oregon primary, a new law allows for ballots to be counted as long as they were postmarked on election day. That could make it more difficult to call a tight race soon. Additionally, some primary ballots in Clackamas County had defective barcodes and needed to be processed differently, possibly drawing out the process for counting votes there.
This is a developing story. Watch for updates.
Sam Stites and Kristian Foden-Vencil contributed reporting.