Oregon’s gubernatorial race is one of the more surprisingly competitive of this election cycle. Pollsters consider it a toss-up, despite Oregon’s deep-blue complexion. Current governor Kate Brown, a term-limited Democrat, has one of the lowest approval ratings of any governor. Republican candidate Christine Drazan hopes to capitalize on Brown’s unpopularity, driven heavily by the chaos in Oregon’s largest city, Portland. Under Brown, Portland has shed its former quaint reputation as the city “where young people go to retire” and now resembles San Francisco, Jr.
Portland’s troubles are rising violent crime, rising quality-of-life crime, drugs, and homelessness. According to estimates, Multnomah County, where Portland is based, has slightly more than 3,000 street homeless, or close to the same number as in New York City, which is ten times its size. Since 2019, street homelessness in Multnomah increased an estimated 50 percent. Encampments have proliferated, menacing civic gems such as Laurelhurst Park. Sometimes found nestled amid encampments are chop shops, trafficking in parts harvested from stolen autos. Last year, Portland’s 9,230 car thefts hit the highest mark since the early 1990s, and they may well break the city’s all-time record this year. When asked why they can’t do more about stolen cars, police stress the need to focus on more serious crime. Portland saw 88 murders in 2021, a record, and a 240 percent increase since 2018.
Portland’s George Floyd riots were among the most notorious and longest-lasting among U.S. cities, stretching well into fall 2020. Activist groups remain active. Reports of graffiti are up since 2020. According to Willamette Week, 90 percent of school facilities have been damaged or defaced in the past two years. Other vandalism targets include small businesses and the campaign offices of proprietors and politicians, respectively, who have expressed support for encampment clean-ups. One of Portland mayor Ted Wheeler’s recent initiatives was to ban encampments along routes kids use to walk to school. Among members of Portland’s advocacy community, that was considered controversial.
Portland lost population in 2021, enrollment is down in the schools, and downtown, host to so much of 2020’s looting and window-smashing, has lost vitality. An analysis published in June, looking at cellphone data in large and medium-sized North American cities to evaluate how much they’ve come back since the pandemic, found that downtown Portland had the third-lowest “recovery quotient” in the 62-city cohort.
Drazan is a former state legislator who represented an area outside Portland and who served as state GOP minority leader before stepping down to run as governor. Though a Republican has little hope of winning Portland itself, Drazan’s agenda aims at improving conditions there, or at least keeping them from spreading statewide. “Don’t Portland my Oregon” has become a popular bumper sticker and t-shirt meme. Drazan pledges to declare a state of emergency on homelessness, the top issue on her platform. She also wants to roll back Measure 110, a 2020 ballot initiative that decriminalized the possession of hard drugs. She argues that addressing addiction requires law enforcement, not just the social-service programs favored by Democrats. Since Measure 110 went into effect, uptake on treatment programs has been pathetically low, and fatal overdoses have risen.
Joe Biden won Oregon by 16 percentage points in 2020, and the state hasn’t elected a Republican governor since 1982. Democrats have held a trifecta in state government since 2013. During almost that entire span, Drazan’s Democratic opponent, Tina Kotek, served as speaker of the Oregon House of Representatives. Kotek stresses her past experience working on homelessness and related social problems, but Drazan has tried to define that experience as more of a liability than an asset. Drazan takes every opportunity to link Kotek to Kate Brown and the departing governor’s dismal poll numbers.
Another former Democratic state legislator, Betsy Johnson, left her party to run for governor as an independent. She has organized a credible, well-funded campaign, though she currently trails Drazan and Kotek, who are neck and neck. If elected, Johnson pledges to take the “best ideas from both parties”; she is expected to drain support from both of her opponents. Drazan criticizes Johnson as similarly associated with the failures of recent leadership.
Drazan needs only a plurality to prevail on November 8. Whether she wins or loses, she has already helped revive the blue-state Republican governor model. Every blue state in America has a major city with a high-profile crime and disorder problem, and no GOP candidate for a blue-state governorship will fail to run on that. In the 2010s, the blue-state Republican governor model was defined by Maryland’s Larry Hogan and Massachusetts’ Charlie Baker. Their technocratic brand succeeded—Baker and Hogan have long ranked among the most popular American governors—but it has lost relevance as the politics of lawlessness gained salience. Drazan will also leave a mark on the opposition party: she has pushed Democrats harder on crime and disorder than Hogan and Baker ever did. Her most important legacy may well be a somewhat saner Democratic Party in Oregon.