OregonLive - Nov 9, 2016
The Oregon Republican Party broke Democrats' 14-year lock on statewide office Tuesday, with Dennis Richardson winning election as Oregon's next secretary of state.
Richardson, the Republican nominee for governor in 2014, narrowly defeated Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian, according to partial returns late Tuesday. A social conservative in a stridently liberal state, Richardson campaigned to be Oregon's "chief auditor," bringing checks and balances to the state.
"We're going to have a secretary of state that restores accountability for actions," Richardson declared Tuesday night at a GOP election party in Salem. He promised transparency and trust in his office.
With three-quarters of the vote counted, Richardson led the race by 60,000 votes at 705,000. He had 47.7 percent of the vote to Avakian's 43.6 percent.
Avakian had struggled to consolidate his base after defeating two prominent Democrats in the May primary and was unsuccessful in convincing voters that Richardson's social views would impact his performance in an office whose official duties are largely administrative.
"This was a hard-fought campaign, and I congratulate Dennis Richardson in his victory," Avakian said in a statement late Tuesday. "I'm proud that we've run a substantive, issue-oriented campaign, and I want to thank the many volunteers and supporters who have helped us along the way."
The race for secretary of state was the most hotly contested of the statewide offices this election cycle, with polls showing either a dead heat or Richardson leading in the last month of the campaign. The result is a historic election, at least for Oregon Republicans who have struggled to elect leaders statewide.
Secretary of state is usually a low-profile job in Oregon, presiding over elections, managing state audits to guard against wasteful public spending and maintaining a list of companies registered to do business in the state.
But Oregon's secretary of state is also second in line to the governorship, and that's how Kate Brown came to her current job, after Gov. John Kitzhaber resigned early last year. Brown appointed longtime Democratic operative Jeanne Atkins to fill the post, and Atkins said she would serve as caretaker and not seek election.
Oregon Republicans had been shut out in successive statewide elections dating to 2002, when U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith won re-election. Democrats have held the secretary of state's office since 1985 and last lost a race for governor in 1982, when Gov. Vic Atiyeh beat Democrat Ted Kulongoski.
But Richardson came into the race with name recognition after running a competitive race with Kitzhaber two years ago, losing by six percentage points.
Richardson is a trial lawyer from Central Point who began a 12-year career in the House in 2003, the same year Avakian came to the House. Richardson worked on the Legislature's budget-writing committee, but was known as a fierce opponent of abortion and for decrying homosexuality.
As labor commissioner, Avakian was best known for taking on Sweet Cakes by Melissa, a Gresham bakery that refused to bake a cake for a same-sex couple. Avakian hit the company with a $135,000 penalty.
Demoralized Oregon Democrats closed down their election-night party without an appearance by Avakian.
At the Republicans' party in Salem, GOP gubernatorial nominee Bud Pierce conceded Tuesday night but called Richardson's lead in the down-ballot race a bright spot for the party.
"I think he's going to win and he's perfect for the role," Pierce said. "He will bring discipline and a fresh view."
Oregonian reporters Janet Eastman and Samantha Bakall contributed to this article.
— Mike Rogoway