Third-party candidate upends gubernatorial race in reliable blue Oregon

The last time Oregon voters elected a Republican governor, the top song in the United States was Men at Work’s “Who Can It Be Now,” ET was dominating the box office, and Diet Coke and Bud Light were coming. to go out for the first time. .

But now a competitive third-party candidate, a divided Democratic Party and a barrage of political attacks on rising crime and homelessness could give a blue state that President Joe Biden won by 16 percentage points his first governor of the GOP in 40 years.

The tight race between Democrat Tina Kotek, Republican Christine Drazan and independent Betsy Johnson is the product of several fairly rare dynamics, according to political observers, strategists, pollsters and all three campaigns.

Record crime and homelessness in the state have helped drive down Democratic Governor Kate Brown’s approval ratings (she’s term-limited) and created an opening for attacks on Kotek, a former president of the State Chamber.

Johnson, a well-funded independent who served as a Democratic state legislator for two decades before stepping down to launch her third-party candidacy, framed her candidacy with the pair of flashpoint issues, hammering Kotek with attacks on her record. . While Johnson has consistently polled well below his two main-party competitors, his candidacy has removed much of the Democratic nominee’s potential voters in the reliable blue state.

Unaffiliated candidate Betsy Johnson speaks during a gubernatorial debate in Welches, Oregon on July 29.Jamie Valdez/Pool via AP

Johnson, who is both pro-gun and pro-abortion, appeals to “people who may have lost faith in Oregon Democrats amid public safety concerns, but are not at all ready to vote for a Republican,” said Neil O’Brian, a political scientist at the University of Oregon and an expert on state politics.

“She can kind of signal to these people, ‘Even though I’m running as an independent, I’m still kind of a Democrat, and I certainly don’t run as far right as Drazan’, O’Brian” It’s a political in-between that really gets things moving.”

The Kotek campaign and other Democrats predict Democratic voters will reliably turn to abortion, a major midterm concern following the June Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade (Drazan is anti-abortion), and gun control, which is an issue out of Oregon. November election. The ballot asks voters to decide whether to ban magazines that contain more than 10 rounds and would require criminal background checks for most gun purchases. (Kotek supports gun control measures, unlike his two opponents).

Strategists and political observers, however, suggested that Johnson’s offer changed everything for Kotek.

” If she [Johnson] not run, it wouldn’t have been such a competitive race. Oregon has been very blue for a very long time,” said Rebecca Tweed, a Republican strategist in the state.

In what could be an attempt to bring Democratic voters home, Biden is heading to Oregon this weekend for an event with the state party and a fundraiser to benefit Kotek and other Democrats.

“Maybe it brings back into the fold Democrats and progressives who are unsure but afraid to vote for an independent,” Tweed said.

A recent poll indicated that Johnson is turning away more voters from Kotek than from Drazan. An Emerson College survey released last week found that 9% of Republican voters said they support Johnson, while 17% of Democratic voters said they support her.

Drazan, a former State House minority leader who would be the first Republican elected state governor since 1982, will host his own prominent surrogates: Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who last year knocked down a red blue, will campaign alongside Drazan next week. Youngkin, who has been mentioned as a future presidential candidate, has lent his hand in recent weeks to competitive GOP gubernatorial candidates across the United States.

Republican candidate Christine Drazan.
Republican candidate Christine Drazan. Jamie Valdez/Pool via AP

The latest polling average from RealClearPolitics shows Drazan leading Kotek 37.3% to 34.3% — a 2.4 percentage point lead that is within the margin of error of the surveys included. Johnson averaged 16% support in the polls. Last month, the nonpartisan Cook Political Report changed its rating in the run-off race to Democratic leaning.

Since Sept. 1, Kotek and outside groups that support her have spent more than $4.7 million to $3.3 million on Drazan and its allies, according to AdImpact, a political ad tracking firm. Johnson and the groups that support her have also outspent Drazan – having lost $3.9 million over the same period.

Johnson’s advertisements emphasized public safety. In a spot released this week, she called the state a “total mess”, listing “tent cities, drugs and crime” as reasons for her accusation. Another spot features a constituent talking about his son’s fatal fentanyl overdose, blaming Kotek for working to pass a bill legalizing “hard drugs.”

“Normally, I am a die-hard Democrat. This time I’m with Betsy Johnson,” the woman said in a direct call to the camera.

Drazan also hammered Kotek on these issues and used recent ads to tie Kotek and Johnson to each other — and to Brown, who a poll this week continues to have the highest disapproval ratings. heights of all governors in the United States.

An ad on Thursday accused Kotek of supporting the “defund the police” movement, legalizing tent cities and voting to free violent criminals from prison. (The Kotek campaign said their candidate did not support defunding police departments and accused opponents of twisting a bill it supported to curb camping.)

Attacks on Kotek over security issues also figured prominently in the debates between the three candidates.

The Kotek campaign has fought back with increasing vigor in recent days, attempting in ads to paint Drazan and Johnson as “too right-wing” on issues like guns and abortion for Oregon voters, and to link Drazan to former President Donald Trump and other 2020 election deniers.

In an interview, Kotek campaign spokeswoman Kate Wertheimer also called Johnson a “spoiler” candidate who “has a 1 in 100 chance of winning” but who “opens the door for a Republican to win in a state that does not correspond to republican values”. .”

With ballots being sent out in the coming days, Democrats working on the campaign said they hoped more voters would drift to Kotek as they tuned in to the race.

“When Oregonians learn of the right-wing backgrounds of Drazan and Johnson, they will be surprised and they will go home to where their values ​​lie,” Democratic Governors Association spokesman Sam Newton said in a statement. an interview. Newton pointed to the fact that pundits had considered the state’s 2018 gubernatorial race a draw at a similar time in October four years ago, but Brown ended up winning by a comfortable margin. .

But others have warned that the current cycle is very different.

“Public safety has become the primary concern in a way that it was not before. It’s really a problem here in Oregon,” Tweed said. “These aren’t just talking points.”

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