Can Nick Kristof’s Native-Outsider Gambit Play in Oregon?
Blue-state blues, pockets of red resentment, and a columnist candidate may make the 2022 Oregon governor’s race especially interesting.
Although Oregon governor Kate Brown assumed her position only after a 2015 influence-peddling scandal forced her predecessor to resign, her reelection three years later triggered Oregon’s term-limit laws. That’s probably for the best, given that Brown has consistently ranked as one of the most unpopular governors in the country. In March, just 37 percent of Oregonians said they had a “somewhat” or “very” positive view of her, compared with 57 percent who marked “somewhat” or “very” negative.
Despite all of that, the Oregon GOP’s incompetence enabled Brown to best her 2018 Republican challenger by a comfortable six points. Barring an unprecedented shift in the state’s electorate, it is more likely than not that Brown’s successor will be a Democrat: Registered Democrats outnumber registered Republicans by ten points, and the state has not elected a Republican governor since 1982. What is unusual, however, is that there is no obvious favorite for that position: “For the first time in a quarter century, Oregonians will vote for governor in 2022 with no clear Democratic or Republican frontrunner in sight or even any prominent early-bird candidates,” the Oregon-based political consulting group CFM Advocates wrote in June. “In fact, more politicians have said they aren’t running than have said they are.”
The power vacuum left by Brown’s impending departure opens the way to an unusually interesting 2022 race in the Beaver State. Among a number of predictable establishment picks, including the state treasurer and the Oregon House speaker, the slate of gubernatorial hopefuls will also include one heterodox candidate who has spent most of his career outside of the state: New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof.
Kristof, 62, officially filed his candidate committee papers with the Oregon secretary of state on Tuesday. In the Oregon native’s impressive 37-year career at the Times, his writing on human rights and global poverty-related issues has taken him to 160 countries, winning him two Pulitzers in the process — first for reporting on Tiananmen Square in 1990, and second for his work on the Darfur genocide in 2006. He and his wife moved back to Oregon in 2019; he’s been on leave from the Times since July. Here’s what he told The Oregonian about his gubernatorial ambitions: “I have friends trying to convince me that here in Oregon, we need new leadership from outside the broken political system. I’m honestly interested in what my fellow Oregonians have to say about that. All I know for sure is that we need someone with leadership and vision so that folks from all over the state can come together to get us back on track.”
Kristof describes himself as a “progressive” and plans to run for governor as a Democrat. And yet for conservatives in a deep-blue state like Oregon, he may well be preferable to any of the realistic alternatives. Oregon, like many states, is characterized by a yawning urban–rural divide: Geographically vast but sparsely populated conservative regions such as my home district of OR-2 — rated as R+11 on the Cook Partisan Voter Index — are governed by progressive politicians from population-dense urban areas, producing an increasingly bitter resentment toward Oregon’s political class. Conservative pockets of the state feel ignored by the bicameral Democratic supermajority in Salem, so much so that seven rural Oregon counties have voted to secede from the state and join neighboring Idaho instead — a Sisyphean effort, given that it requires the approval of the overwhelmingly blue state legislature, but a stark expression of deep-seated dissatisfaction.
Kristof grew up on a sheep and cherry farm in Yamhill, a conservative exurban community far outside the left-wing strongholds of Portland and Eugene. While definitively liberal, his politics are largely devoid of the uglier and more radical impulses that often characterize modern progressivism. He is regarded with some suspicion by the cultural Left for his staunchly critical coverage of the porn industry — coverage that The New Republic’s Melissa Gira Grant complained was “somewhere between beneficent voyeurism and journalistic malpractice” — and for his skeptical writing on the social-justice pieties of modern campus culture. Writing in 2016 of his encounters on social media with fellow liberals who scorned the idea of intellectual diversity on college campuses, Kristof said:
To me, the conversation illuminated primarily liberal arrogance — the implication that conservatives don’t have anything significant to add to the discussion. My Facebook followers have incredible compassion for war victims in South Sudan, for kids who have been trafficked, even for abused chickens, but no obvious empathy for conservative scholars facing discrimination.
Furthermore, unlike many of the other Democratic contenders, Kristof is not a creature of the Salem political machine. The other well-known Democrats who have announced are “reliable allies to the groups and organizations that fund and organize statewide races on the Democrat side — public-sector unions, environmental groups, etc.,” says Jeff Eager, the former Republican mayor of Bend and the author of a weekly newsletter on Oregon politics. “For quite some time, the pattern for Democrats getting elected has been: You get those organizations behind you, and they spend a bunch of money, and obviously drive up your name ID in that process. And you know, the people who do that are often really the ones who win.”
“If you look at what Kristof is saying thus far about why he is interested in running, he wants to run as an outsider,” Eager tells National Review. “He’s running on the idea that the current party system is producing bad results for the state, which a lot of Oregonians — including a lot of Democrats — would agree with.”
That could help Kristof: While the majority of Oregon’s voters are undeniably Democrats, there is reason to believe that they are unhappy with the state’s current political arrangements, as suggested by Brown’s abysmal approval ratings. Oregon’s bottom-ten ratings for public schools and taxes and regulation, and Portland’s descent into disarray over the past year and a half, have contributed to this pervasive sense of dissatisfaction with state leadership. On top of that, Kristof’s relative friendliness to the redder parts of Oregon might help bridge the state’s political and geographic divisions — and maybe even bring some Democrat-skeptical voters into the fold.
Overcoming the state’s political establishment will be no easy task, of course. “If he’s going to be running against entrenched interests in Salem, those entrenched interests are the typical funding and volunteer sources for Democratic candidates,” Eager says. “Maybe he can pull that off, but it would have to be a different path to the governorship than anyone has had in recent memory — and maybe ever.” Given the broad political discontent in the state’s electorate, though, an upset is not unimaginable.
Something to Consider
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