Oregon Democrats could be staring at their worst election in decades. The Beaver State’s newly created sixth congressional district—intended “to be a safe blue, Biden +13 fortress in Salem and suburban Portland,” according to the Cook Political Report—was moved from “Lean Democrat” to “Toss-Up” by the political-analytics group on Tuesday. Democrats, who currently control every statewide office and enjoy supermajorities in both chambers of the state legislature, “have struggled to put away the nearby Eugene 4th CD and Bend/suburban Portland 5th CD, also both open seats,” Cook’s David Wasserman noted. Most significant of all, in the governor’s contest, “Republican Christine Drazan has a genuine chance to defeat Democrat Tina Kotek by attacking the status quo on homelessness and crime, in a race scrambled by an independent bid by wealthy ex-Democrat Betsy Johnson.”
It’s hard to overstate how revolutionary a Drazan victory would be. A Republican hasn’t occupied the Oregon governor’s mansion since 1987, when Victor Atiyeh, a Syrian-American carpet-salesman-turned-Reagan-Republican, left office. That gives the state the unenviable title of the second-longest stretch of unbroken Democratic governors in the nation, trailing its longest-suffering neighbor to the north, Washington State, by just two years. But if there’s any year for Oregon Republicans to end their three-and-a-half-decade gubernatorial drought, it’s 2022. For months, polling has shown Drazan and Kotek in a virtual tie. The four most recent polls, all published in the past two weeks, show Drazan leading Kotek by narrow margins. Analysts have continually tightened their assessments of the race: both Cook and the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics now rate it a “Toss-Up.”
An almost-miraculous number of factors—some owing to smart Republican strategy, others to Democratic incompetence, and still others to luck—have converged to make the Oregon governor’s race a dogfight. National red-wave conditions—an unpopular Democratic administration in tandem with the electorate’s standard habit of punishing the president’s party in the midterms—are intersecting with a set of potent, state-specific reasons for Oregonians to be upset with the party whose nominee they’ve backed in the last nine presidential elections.
This year’s election marks the first referendum on the ruling party’s record on Covid since the crisis subsided, and the disastrous effects of Oregon’s pandemic governance are just now beginning to fully materialize. A two-year cocktail of draconian lockdowns and lax enforcement of public order has amounted to what the late paleoconservative writer Sam Francis described as “anarcho-tyranny”: a “combination of oppressive government power against the innocent and the law-abiding and, simultaneously, a grotesque paralysis of the ability or the will to use that power to carry out basic public duties such as protection or public safety.” The result has been skyrocketing drug-overdose deaths, civic breakdown, shuttered businesses in once-vibrant Portland, and alarming levels of learning loss among Oregon students. Almost all of these developments can be tied to policy decisions of state and local Democrats.
In the roughly one-and-a-half years since Oregon opted to decriminalize all drugs—including crack cocaine, methamphetamine, and heroin—fatal overdoses have jumped about 60 percent, with a body count numbering in the thousands. The decriminalization approach of treating addiction as a disease, not a crime, has proved a dismal failure: less than 1 percent of users ticketed for possession have actually entered treatment. In Portland, where the district attorney declined to prosecute 70 percent of cases related to the city’s destructive Black Lives Matter riots in 2020—which cost the city tens of millions of dollars in damage—local authorities appear to have given up on public order. The number of homeless encampments exploded after the municipal government stopped enforcing vagrancy laws, and as of last November, the city had fewer police on the ground than at any point in the past 30 years. In 2021, Portland saw an all-time record number of shootings and killings; the city is on pace to break both records again this year. And last month, the first statewide test scores since 2019 found that “Oregon students’ reading, writing and math skills plummeted due to pandemic-induced disruptions to schooling,” which the Oregon Department of Education acknowledged “could take years to repair and may in some cases never be made up for,” the Oregonian reported.
Residents have noticed. A January poll found that 54 percent of Oregonians believe the state is on the wrong track, while just 33 percent believe it’s on the right one.
The outgoing Democratic governor, Kate Brown, has continually polled as the least popular governor in America. Kotek, a close Brown ally, can’t run from her party’s toxic record on the campaign’s defining issues. Kotek backed Measure 110, the November 2020 ballot initiative that decriminalized hard drugs, and she has routinely defended the measure. Despite her recent attempts to memory-hole her record on education, she repeatedly led efforts to block the reopening of Oregon schools during her tenure as speaker of the Oregon House and declined to condemn the teacher-union-led re-shuttering of schools in Portland as late as this year. As Willamette Week noted, “Kotek was chief sponsor of House Bill 3115, which enshrined in state law the right to camp in public spaces—over pushback in Salem from critics who saw the bill as exporting Portland’s policies to the rest of the state.” And the top Democrat regularly sided with rioters over law enforcement during Portland’s BLM uprisings, even penning a letter rebuking police for responding with tear gas when protesters attempted in July 2020 to burn down a police-union building. The crowd-control efforts were “completely unacceptable,” Kotek wrote, apparently in the belief that the building was empty—not that this would excuse such lawless and destructive behavior. And it turned out that two officers had been inside at the time.
On top of this, Betsy Johnson, an unusually competitive and well-funded Democrat-turned-independent, could prove to be a spoiler candidate. Johnson, who spent two decades as a Democrat in the state legislature before leaving the party to run as an unaffiliated gubernatorial candidate, has been polling in the high teens, ten points or so behind Kotek and Drazan. Johnson’s campaign received a major boost last October from a $2 million donation by Nike co-founder Phil Knight. (Nike’s world headquarters are situated in a Portland suburb). But last week, Knight—who backed the Republican in Oregon’s 2018 gubernatorial election—made a $1 million donation to Drazan, a move widely hailed as a shift in the loyalties of one of the heavyweight donors in Oregon politics. It’s unclear if the donation signified a genuine change of heart, or if Knight’s moves represent a strategic effort to weaken Democrats. (“I’m going to hazard a guess that this was the plan all along,” Dacia Grayber, a Democrat in the Oregon House, tweeted in response to news of Knight’s donation to Drazan.). Either way, it was another indication of the GOP’s building momentum in the race.
Drazan, meantime, has run a near-flawless campaign, emphasizing public order, jobs, education, and a broader desire to restore sanity in Oregon—the kind of message that can carry blue-state Republican insurgencies to victory. Drazan’s tone seems to be part of a broader effort to create a permission structure for disaffected Democratic voters nearing their wits’ end with Oregon’s political leadership but otherwise loath to vote for Republicans.
On some issues, Drazan, who previously served as the minority leader in the Oregon House, has signaled a reliable conservatism to voters in the deep-red eastern and central parts of the state, even as she appeals to moderates. On education, for example, she regularly promises to “get back to the basics and get politics out of the classroom,” but rarely mentions hot-button terms like critical race theory. Republican voters know what she means, of course, but the message also resonates with Democratic-leaning parents who worry about the radicalization of public school curricula in areas like Portland but instinctively recoil at terms they associate with right-wing culture warring. On abortion, Drazan maintains that she has “never shied away from my pro-life values,” even as she assures Oregon’s overwhelmingly pro-choice electorate that she will enforce the state’s laws on the issue (unlikely to change, given the near-certainty of a Democratic state legislature) and positions herself as the moderate candidate. “Oregon’s approach to this issue is unique,” she said in the first gubernatorial debate. “We are one of just a small handful of states that allow elective abortion up to birth. That’s not what Roe v. Wade expected and anticipated, that’s not how most states have regulated this. . . . Most Oregonians do not believe that taking a life in the third trimester—when if that baby were born otherwise it would be viewed as pre-term—that that is somehow a woman’s right.”
If the Oregon governor’s mansion turns red this November, it will be the result of an unlikely set of circumstances, many of which were not Drazan’s doing. But the 49-year-old mother of three deserves credit for the skill with which she has played an unusually advantageous hand. A Republican upset is far from guaranteed; the polls remain within the margin of error, and this is Oregon, after all. But the Drazan campaign has given a masterclass in how to make the case for conservative governance in a deep-blue state.
Change is in the air. A long-demoralized Oregon GOP can smell an elusive victory. Democrats can sense it, too. It’s no wonder that President Biden is traveling to the state—normally a safe Democratic hold—to campaign with Kotek. But with less than four weeks to go until November 8, Drazan is in the hunt, and the president’s efforts may be too little, too late.