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Third-party candidate upends race for governor in reliably blue Oregon

Betsy Johnson, a Democrat-turned-independent, is siphoning votes from Democrat Tina Kotek, threatening to give Oregon its first Republican governor in decades.
Democratic nominee Tina Kotek, right, listens to Republican nominee Christine Drazan during a gubernatorial debate  in Welches, Ore., on July 29.
Democratic nominee Tina Kotek, right, listens to Republican nominee Christine Drazan during a gubernatorial debate in Welches, Ore., on July 29. Jamie Valdez / Pool via AP file

The last time Oregon voters elected a Republican governor, the top song in the U.S. was Men at Work's “Who Can It Be Now," E.T. was dominating the box office, and Diet Coke and Bud Light had just hit the shelves for the first time.

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

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

Record-breaking crime and homelessness in the state have helped drive down Democratic Gov. Kate Brown's approval ratings (she's term-limited) and created an opening for attacks against Kotek, a former state House Speaker. If elected, Kotek would be one of the first openly lesbian governors in the nation.

Johnson, a well-funded independent who served as a Democratic state lawmaker for two decades before resigning to launch her third-party bid, has framed her candidacy off the pair of flashpoint issues, hammering Kotek with attacks on her record. While Johnson has still polled far below her two major-party competitors, her candidacy has peeled off a large chunk of potential voters from the Democratic candidate in the reliably blue state.

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

Johnson, who is both pro-gun rights and pro-abortion rights, appeals to "people who have perhaps lost confidence in Democrats in Oregon amid the public safety issues, but who aren’t at all ready to vote for a Republican,” said Neil O’Brian, a political scientist at the University of Oregon and an expert on the state’s 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’m certainly not running as far to the right as Drazan,'" O’Brian said. "It’s a political in-between that really shakes things up.”

The Kotek campaign and other Democrats predict that reliably Democratic voters will turn out on abortion, a top midterms concern following the Supreme Court's June decision overturning Roe v. Wade (Drazan is anti-abortion), and gun control, which is an issue on Oregon's November ballot. The ballot asks voters to decide whether to ban magazines that hold more than 10 rounds and that would require criminal background checks for most gun purchases. (Kotek supports the gun control measures, while her two opponents do not).

Strategists and politics watchers, however, suggested that Johnson’s bid has changed everything for Kotek.

“Had 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 begin driving Democratic voters home, Biden is visiting Oregon this weekend for an event with the state party and a fundraiser to benefit Kotek and other Democrats.

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

Recent polling has indicated that Johnson is poaching 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 minority leader in the state House who would be the first Republican elected governor in the state since 1982, will welcome prominent surrogates of her own: Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who last year flipped a blue state red, will campaign alongside Drazan next week. Youngkin, who has been mentioned as a future presidential candidate, has lent a hand in recent weeks to competitive GOP gubernatorial candidates across the U.S.

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

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

Since Sept. 1, Kotek and outside groups supporting her have outspent Drazan and her allies $4.7 million to $3.3 million, according to an AdImpact, a political ad-tracking firm. Johnson and groups supporting her have also outspent Drazan — having dropped $3.9 million over the same time period.

Johnson’s ads have focused prominently on public safety. In one spot released this week, she calls the state “a total mess,” listing “tent cities, drugs and crime” as reasons behind her charge. Another spot features a voter talking about her son’s lethal opioid overdose, blasting Kotek for having worked to pass a bill that legalized “hard drugs.”

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

(In 2020, Oregon voters passed a ballot measure, known as Measure 110, that decriminalized all drugs. Kotek supported it. Drazan and Johnson have campaigned during the current cycle on vows to repeal the measure, while Kotek has said she would not work to repeal it).

Drazan has also hammered Kotek on those issues and has used recent ads to tie Kotek and Johnson to each other — and to Brown, who, according to polling this week, continues to have the highest disapproval ratings of any governor in the U.S.

One ad that went on the air Thursday accused Kotek of supporting the “defund the police” movement, legalizing tent cities and having voted to release violent criminals from prison. (The Kotek campaign said that their candidate does not support defunding police departments and accused her opponents of misrepresenting a bill she supported to curb camping.)

Attacks against Kotek over safety issues also featured prominently during debates among the three candidates.

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

In an interview, Kotek campaign spokesperson Kate Wertheimer also called Johnson a “spoiler” candidate who “has a one in 100 chance of winning” but who “is opening the door for a Republican to win in a state that does not align with Republican values.” 

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

“When Oregonians learn about the right-wing records of both Drazan and Johnson, they will be surprised, and they will come home to where their values are,” Sam Newton, a spokesman for the Democratic Governors Association, said in an interview. Newton pointed to the fact that pundits had deemed the 2018 race for governor in the state a toss-up at a similar point in October four years ago, but that Brown ended up winning by a comfortable margin.

But others cautioned that the current cycle is far different.

“Public safety has become the top issue in a way it didn’t used to be. It really is a problem here in Oregon,” Tweed said. “It’s not just talking points.”