How a 3rd-party candidate upended Oregon governor's race and may just spoil Democrats' streak
"This is the tightest race we've seen and the most complex race we've seen."
Oregon has had a Democratic governor for 35 years -- but this year's race could very well break that streak thanks to a potent cocktail of local and national issues but, mostly, because of a boisterous third-party candidate drawing double-digit support from voters.
With weeks left until Election Day, race observers and operatives call the contest a jump ball between Democrats and Republicans.
"I'm very concerned," said Greg Peden, who worked as an aide to former Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber. "I think this is the tightest race we've seen and the most complex race we've seen, and I don't think anybody can really predict even now how exactly this ends up."
Running to replace term-limited Gov. Kate Brown are former state House Speaker Tina Kotek, the Democratic nominee, and Republican rival Christine Drazan, a former state House minority leader.
But strategists of both parties say that the real twist behind the election's tightness is the third-party candidacy of former state Sen. Betsy Johnson, who was a Democrat while in office and is now running as an independent.
She was a staunch moderate over her 20 years in the state House and Senate, a reputation that has followed her onto the campaign trail and could be helpful in a state with more non-affiliated voters than registered Democrats.
According to FiveThirtyEight's polling average, Johnson is earning about 16% support, keeping both Drazan and Kotek in the mid- to high-30s. Kotek had been considered the favorite early in the cycle, given Oregon's blue hue, but since late September it's Drazan who has eked out a razor-thin lead.
While Democrats win in Oregon at the federal level with ease, the state has hosted several tight gubernatorial contests, with the past two being decided by about 6 and 7 points, respectively. Still, Republicans have not won the governorship since 1982 and President Joe Biden most recently took the Beaver State by 16 points just two years ago -- resulting in Oregon being left out of the core of most prognosticators' battleground maps this cycle.
In launching her third-party campaign last fall, Johnson acknowledged that "taking on the entrenched two parties will be difficult and expensive" but cast herself as "independent-minded, pro-choice [and] pro-jobs."
Kotek and Drazan's campaigns diverge on some priorities -- Kotek's focus includes abortion access and climate change while Drazan highlights resource management and public education -- but both of them tout three of the same issues: the economy and the working class; housing and the homeless; and public safety.
Crime and housing have become major concerns in the state at the same time that many in Oregon and elsewhere are grappling with historically high inflation.
Pulling from Democratic and Republican platforms, Johnson has consistently voiced support for abortion access while lambasting crime and homelessness in Portland and describing herself as a "lifelong responsible gun owner and collector."
Johnson's campaign did not respond to requests for comment for this story but she told Fox News earlier this month that "people are frightened and they're mad" and on education said, "Let's not worry about pronouns. Let's worry about mathematics."
Johnson also brings significant personal wealth to the race and has received $3.75 million from Nike co-founder Phil Knight.
"Oh, absolutely," Oregon Democratic strategist Jake Weigler said when asked if Kotek would have the advantage in a two-person race without Johnson. "It would probably be a more competitive race than the Democrats have had in the past … But I think it would be a completely different conversation."
Johnson's estimated appeal among disaffected voters unwilling to back Drazan also dovetails with another challenge for Kotek.
FiveThirtyEight reported earlier this month that Gov. Brown, who has served since 2015, is not widely popular, which some Democrats worry tarnishes the party brand -- and Kotek by extension.
"The race is agonizingly tight because Betsy is taking more votes from Tina than from Christine. But it's also in part because people equate Tina with Gov. Brown, who has a low approval rating. That is unfair because they are completely different people, with different styles of governing," said one former Democratic state legislator.
Republicans are also bullish that Drazan will be able to go on offense on some policies, seizing on economic worries and the scars over the violence and social justice-related unrest in Portland -- which have all taken place while Democrats have complete control in Salem.
Oregon had the seventh-highest homeless population in 2020, according to federal government data, and Portland has experienced an increase in crimes like murder and assault, according to the city's police. Drazan has blanketed the airwaves with ads featuring tents lining Portland streets and broader questions about Oregonians' satisfaction with the current state of affairs, all while staying away from thornier issues like her support for Donald Trump or abortion restrictions.
"Oregonians really feel like this just is not being addressed, and the state doesn't want to be known for that. We don't want people afraid to come to the state because they're afraid of crime, but it's a reality," said Oregon GOP strategist Rebecca Tweed. She argued that "businesses are leaving, people are stopping visiting, regular day-to-day folks just don't feel safe anymore. So it's certainly a much bigger issue."
Still, Kotek has hefty advantages
Chief among them is Democrats' inherent edge in the state. Johnson appears to have hit a ceiling in voter surveys, and there are almost 300,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans. And Democrats have decades of institutional knowledge on how to win gubernatorial races.
"On the polling, it looks like a toss-up, but when you look at the advantage in terms of registration numbers and past history, even with close elections, I think that advantage still has to lie with Kotek," said Pacific University political science professor Jim Moore. "That's a big hill to climb for the Republicans."
On policy, Kotek is hammering hard on abortion access, pressing Drazan to take a more definitive stance on how she'd approach the issue as governor. And Kotek is trying to tie her Republican opponent to the most radical flank of the GOP, highlighting Drazan's expressed support for the entire ticket, which includes a Senate candidate who has talked approvingly about elements of the QAnon conspiracy theory.
That strategy is reflected in an advertising blitz, including in a clip comparing Drazan's policies on abortion to remarks from Supreme Court justices who indicated during their confirmation hearings that they'd back Roe v. Wade before ultimately voting to overturn it.
"We have a very high-propensity voting population of women, they tend to be more progressive. We have more Democrats just in population alone. And if female Democrat voters show up to vote, it'll be a very difficult campaign for Drazan," Tweed, the Republican strategist, conceded. "If I'm Tina Kotek, I'm talking about that issue all day every day until the election's over ... and if I'm Drazan, I'm trying to lean away from it as much as I can."
"We're already seeing that shift," Tweed added. "I think that'll only increase from here on out."
Kotek has also not shied away from crime and homelessness, releasing ads and a proposal to increase housing. Drazan, too, leads her platform with a plan for "the crisis in our streets" and to "restore community safety."
Those dynamics are setting the stage for a combustible finish to the surprisingly tight race.
The Democratic Governors Association has invested about $5 million this cycle, while its Republican counterpart has invested $4.1 million, and each of the three candidates have fearsome war chests. In another sign of broader GOP interest in the race, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin -- who last year won in a blue state -- is campaigning with Drazan in Aurora on Tuesday, and Knight switched camps from Johnson to give Drazan $1 million.
Biden is set to appear with Kotek on Saturday after attending a "grassroots volunteer event with the Oregon Democrats" on Friday, according to the White House.
Turnout is also anticipated to be high given that every active registered voter is mailed a ballot -- starting on Wednesday -- and ballots can then be dropped off as late as 8 p.m. local time on Election Day.
"We're not going to know the outcome of this very close race until maybe Friday of that week or maybe even later," said Greg Leo, the former executive director of the Oregon GOP. "It's gonna be a very long couple of days after the polls close."