Violent crime and homelessness increased during the pandemic years in Oregon, especially in Portland, where tent camps have become a fixture. The state also suffers from drought and water shortages. Illegal drug use has reached epidemic proportions. There was even a short-lived attempt by counties in southeastern Oregon to join Idaho.
Gender isn’t an issue for voters when they decide who is best to deal with these and other problems – the three remaining top candidates are all women, making this election somewhat unique for its lack of male candidates. Polling remains tight and Ballotpedia says Oregon is one of the top four watched races for governor in the country along with Kansas, Arizona, and Nevada.
Early October polling reported by FiveThirtyEight website has Drazan at 34% to Kotek’s 32.9%. The Republican is pulling away from Kotek after polling in September showed Kotek ahead by three points. Johnson trails at 19.5% and is losing ground to Drazen. The poll was conducted by Emerson College and has a plus or minus 3% margin of error.
The tight race has prompted donors to step up and open up their purse strings to a tune of $45 million, making this Oregon’s most expensive election in state history, and there’s still a month of fundraising to go.
Billionaire Nike co-founder Phil Knight has been the largest private donor, dropping $3.75 million into Johnson’s bucket and recently giving another $1 million to Drazan. Johnson has also received large donations from lumber mills and heavy equipment companies. All up, Johnson has raised $16.5 million, outpacing Kotek’s $14.9 million and Drazan’s $13.9 million, according to The Oregonian.
Gov. Kate Brown cannot run again due to term limits but her least popular policy decisions and low approval ratings – intelligence firm Morning Consult declared her the least popular governor in the U.S. – have been fodder for Republicans to attack Kotek and other Democrats.
Brown was mentioned repeatedly in a late September gubernatorial debate held in left-leaning Bend. There was a telling moment around 10 minutes into the debate when Johnson turned to Kotek and asked why she did not oppose Brown’s decision to release nearly 1,000 “dangerous, violent offenders” onto the streets in the early months of the pandemic. Five seconds of awkward silence ensued as Kotek avoided the question before Drazan changed the subject.
In other instances where Kotek has been lumped with the current governor, she has pushed back, trying to distance herself from her Democrat ally in Salem. That moment came during a portion of the Bend debate where the candidates discussed school closures during the pandemic.
“I did not agree with the governor, having teachers vaccinated, but then not getting schools open,” said Kotek. But all three of us were in the legislature, all three of us had influence on the governor, and yet it was the governor who made these decisions.”
But Brown’s dark cloud over the Democrats is not Kotek’s only problem in this race. Johnson – a former Democrat who is supports abortion rights – is pulling votes away from Kotek’s base.
Johnson’s campaign has been boosted with endorsements by state and national leaders on both sides of the aisle, as well as independents. Knute Buehler, who ran against Brown as a republican in 2018, has come out for Johnson. She has also received support from Andrew Yang and former Democrat governor of Oregon Ted Kulongoski.
In campaign advertising, Johnson has tried to portray her rivals as “too extreme” for Oregon and herself as a sort of Goldilocks candidate that can cross party lines and end feuding between Democrats and Republicans. She’s pro-life but also defends the Second Amendment.
“That is the premise of my campaign, to bring the best ideas from both parties and make sure we can implement practical solutions to our most difficult problems,” Johnson said at the Bend debate. “An independent governor with no agenda, beholden to nobody, is the right person to lead that effort.”
In late August, Bend was witness to gun violence in the form of an attempted mass shooting at a Safeway that left two victims dead. When the tragedy came up in the Bend debate, Johnson said she supports a stronger background check system and raising the age of buying semi-automatic weapons from 18 to 21. But she is also against Oregon Ballot Measure 114, which requires safety training to acquire a firearm and prohibits certain magazines.
The 71-year-old also owns a machine gun, which could be a little hard to swallow for some Democrat voters. That admission earned her the nickname “Machine Gun Betsy” by local media.
“Johnson is trying to do something that is very difficult in this more-partisan time — assert that there is a middle between the Republicans and the Democrats,” said Jim Moore, a political science professor at Pacific University.
Abortion is one of the few issues where she lines up with Kotek, and the pair have tried to use the Dobbs decision against Republicans. Abortion is legal in Oregon and Drazan says she intends to uphold the current law if she wins, but Kotek warned voters to be wary of her position.
“A governor can do a lot of damage even if there is a law on the books. Stopping agencies, not being a champion, not moving resources to help Oregonians, so you cannot trust that statement,” she said.
While most Oregonians would line up behind Kotek on abortion, the national political mood has become a drain, with Biden’s unpopularity hurting any Democrat up for election and the tendency in the midterms to vote against the party in the White House. Moore, the political science professor, adds that Trump-inspired challenges to the legitimacy of government are also at work against Democrats in Oregon.
“In terms of issues, we may finally be seeing the main Republican campaign theme of the past 20 years actually work to move voters — Democrats have been in charge too long and the state has suffered for it. This theme did not lead to victory from 2002 to 2018. Maybe 2022 is the year for it,” Moore said.
While the political winds blow against Democrats — and voters align with issues that matter most to them — the candidate’s personal stories and personalities could still be a wild card in the race.
Johnson portrays herself as a jack-of-all-trades, a pilot, a seasoned politician, a small business owner, and a recipient of an ‘A’ rating from the NRA. She’s traveled far beyond Oregon’s borders, representing the U.S. in helicopter competitions in the Soviet Union in the 1970s.
She hails from Central Oregon where her father was a lumberman before serving in the state legislature. She makes no apologies for her gruff demeanor and sometimes crass manner of speaking, recently describing Portland as a “city of roaches.”
Kotek isn’t from Oregon, often a detriment to politicians seeking office here, but she’s made up for that by planting strong roots in the state. She grew up in York County, a Republican corner of Pennsylvania, and attended Georgetown University for two years, then looked West and moved to Oregon where she finished her undergraduate degree in religious studies at the University of Oregon in the late 1980s.
Kotek came out as a lesbian in her early 20s years, a decision she describes as liberating. While she makes little of it in her campaign, a victory would make her America’s first lesbian governor. Married for five years to spouse Aimee Wilson, a social worker, her sexual orientation could help motivate LGBTQ+ votes on both sides of the aisle.
Kotek prides herself on humble beginnings and her hands-on, pre-political work at the Oregon Food Bank. She describes glowingly her fight to reduce food insecurity, including pushes for a strong minimum wage, housing assistance and access to health insurance. She still regularly volunteers at her church pantry. Kotek also pushes for legislation to fight climate change while her rivals veer towards business interests over carbon emissions.
Kotek’s negative ads against her opponents have attempted to portray them as too right-wing for liberal Oregon. In one TV ad, she attempts to link Drazan to far-right extremists who stormed the U.S. Capitol in the Jan. 6 insurrection. There has been no evidence that Drazan supports the right-wing fringe and she hasn’t claimed Democrats stole the election from Trump, at least not in Oregon.
Moore said Kotek has done a reasonably good job during this campaign of telling voters how she plans to fix homelessness and how she’ll do a better job than Brown but adds that she has been preaching to the choir.
“Her main message is to Democrats but there are more registered unaffiliated voters than Democrats right now. Even with lower turnout rates, we can expect about 600,000 to 650,000 unaffiliated votes,” said Moore. “Kotek needs to speak to them, not just assume they will respond to Democratic campaign themes.”
While Kotek and Johnson are both familiar to Oregon voters, Drazan is newer on the stage and has less political baggage. She touts herself as a “small town girl from Klamath Falls” in southern Oregon, raised by a stay-at-home mom and a mill worker dad. She’s a mother of three and most recently spent two years as the Oregon House Republican leader, elected to the state legislature in 2018.
If elected, Drazan said she will crack down on lawlessness, especially in Portland, where the homicide rate in 2021 was 13.5 per 100,000 people – double the nationwide rate. Drazan said she will send in state police to quell violence if Portland police are unable to do so.
“If Portland leaders do not step in, specifically around riots, specifically around unrest that engages around property damage and criminal activity. If Portland leaders don’t step in and resolve that, I as governor will.” she told local TV in Portland. “We have got to get serious about public safety.”
Drazan’s time in the legislature was notable for leading repeated walk-outs by Republicans in order to stall legislation by preventing a quorum, which is two-thirds of the legislative body. Over the course of ten months, Republicans vanished multiple times to prevent the passage of bills on issues ranging from guns to climate change.
Republicans only ended the walkouts after negotiating a deal with Democrats that gave them a greater say in the House Redistricting Committee, partly responsible for redrawing political maps.
David Bernell, an associate professor at the School of Public Policy at Oregon State University says that while Drazan may not be a headline-grabbing candidate she is doing enough to stay in the race, while also not putting her campaign in jeopardy by lining up with fringe elements of the Republican party.
“I don’t think she is a weak candidate for governor as you see in other parts of the country,” Bernell says. “For example in Pennsylvania, where the candidate for governor is right-wing, associated with Trump and the MAGA movement, and denying the results of the presidential election. I don’t think Christine Drazan has that kind of weakness attached to her.”
Drazan mutes her ties to Trump but she has appeared with his more extreme supporters. At a Drazan campaign event at Smith Rock in early September, far-right militia organizer BJ Soper took to the stage and declared that his People’s Right group will defend themselves and their movement physically “if all else fails.”
“Some portion of Republicans will rally behind the candidate with an (R) behind their name, no matter what,” said Eric Lint, a political consultant in Central Oregon. “That’s what BJ Soper called his followers to do at Smith Rock.”
Lint said turnout matters in this election and low turnout will hurt Kotek while Drazan’s success so far stems from a loyal base.
“Drazan’s narrow lead appears to be more a reflection of demographics than a result of persuasion,” said Lint. “Like Trump in the 2016 primaries, a solid base of support in a crowded field gives a strong position.”
If Drazan does become governor, she will be leading a state that has a Democrat supermajority in the House of Representatives. Moore thinks Drazan will need to become an astute bridge builder with Democrats to govern with any impact.
“Drazan’s very short history in the legislature featured quite a few walkouts – she can’t do that as governor,” said Moore.
Into the final month of campaigning, Bernell said he will be watching to see if Johnson supporters – realizing they are giving their vote to a spoiler – may continue their departure from Johnson’s camp and go back to Kotek or Drazan. Such a scenario would probably benefit Kotek in the long run, he said.
“I wouldn’t be surprised to see some small movement — more likely for Kotek — if people see they might be casting their vote for a spoiler,” he added. “Betsy Johnson is likely to be taking more votes from Kotek than Drazan. But who knows how people are going to react.”