No state voting for governor this year has seen a longer Republican drought than Oregon. In 1982, Republican Gov. Vic Atiyeh handily won reelection, but since then Democrats have come out on top in 10 consecutive gubernatorial elections, allowing them to govern Oregon for nearly four decades.1
But 2022 might be the year Republicans finally break their Beaver State losing streak. Republican Christine Drazan, the former minority leader of the Oregon House of Representatives, is running neck and neck with Democrat Tina Kotek, the former longtime speaker of the state House who could become the first out lesbian governor in the U.S. FiveThirtyEight’s 2022 midterm forecast views the race as a toss-up, giving Kotek and Drazan each about a 1-in-2 shot of victory.2 And Drazan holds a narrow 34 percent to 33 percent advantage over Kotek in FiveThirtyEight’s polling average, with independent Betsy Johnson, a former state legislator who served for nearly two decades as a Democrat, attracting about 20 percent.3
One reason Drazan has a chance is that, while Oregon leans Democratic, it’s far from being a deep-blue state. For instance, George W. Bush nearly won the state in the 2000 presidential race, and in 2016, Oregon elected Republican Dennis Richardson as secretary of state, making him the first GOP candidate to win a statewide race since 2002. In fact, while Oregon has consistently elected Democrats to the governorship since the 1980s, the Democratic margin of victory has only once exceeded 10 percentage points, with Republicans coming closest to winning in 2010, when they lost by just 1.5 points.
Oregon Democrats have controlled the governor’s mansion
Results for gubernatorial elections in Oregon, 1982-2018
Still, even very favorable Republican midterm years like 2010 haven’t been good enough for the GOP to capture the governor’s mansion in Salem, so what explains Drazan’s heightened chance of success? At least three factors seem to be playing a part: Johnson’s role as a major independent candidate, Kotek’s poor public perception and Democratic Gov. Kate Brown’s unpopularity — all of which may have many Oregonians looking for change.
Few statewide races involve a truly competitive third wheel, but Johnson could significantly impact this election. Not only is she polling well, she’s also outraised Drazan and Kotek: Johnson had brought in $13.2 million in total contributions, more than Kotek’s $12.7 million and Drazan’s $10.7 million.4 And Johnson has positioned herself between her opponents, dinging Drazan for her anti-abortion stance and Kotek for allegedly intending to make Oregon “woke and broke.” Johnson has received high-profile, bipartisan endorsements from former Democratic Gov. Ted Kulongoski and former Republican Sen. Gordon Smith, and major financial support from uber-wealthy Nike co-founder Phil Knight and timber industry executives (Johnson herself comes from a wealthy family with timber interests).
But for all the attention and money it has garnered, Johnson’s candidacy is less a question about winning — she has less than a 1-in-100 shot of winning the governorship, and FiveThirtyEight only recently made her a viable candidate in our forecast — and more a question of whether she boosts either candidate’s chances by siphoning off more Democrats or Republicans. Emerson College released a poll on Tuesday that found Drazan a smidge ahead of Kotek, with both in the mid-30s, and Johnson trailing at 19 percent. But Johnson earned more support among Democrats (17 percent) than Republicans (9 percent). Additionally, the poll found Kotek winning only 59 percent of self-identified Biden voters, with Johnson carrying 27 percent of them, while Drazan was winning 79 percent of Trump voters and Johnson just 9 percent. Similarly, a late September poll by DHM Research on behalf of The Oregonian/OregonLive also put Drazan and Kotek both in the low 30s, with Johnson at 18 percent, and that poll also found more Democrats (19 percent) than Republicans (13 percent) planned to vote for Johnson.
This is not to say Drazan’s path to victory is all down to Johnson complicating Kotek’s efforts to consolidate the Democratic base, as the public sees Kotek more negatively than it sees Drazan. The Emerson poll found, for example, that only 38 percent of likely voters viewed Kotek favorably, while 50 percent viewed her unfavorably, including a rough 55 percent unfavorable rating among independents. By comparison, Drazan ran about even among all likely voters, at 42 percent favorable and 41 percent favorable. (Johnson had overall numbers similar to Kotek.) This may be down to Kotek’s profile as a strong progressive on social issues, which may make it easier for her opponents to paint her as too left-wing for even a blue-leaning state like Oregon. At the same time, she has a reputation as a wheeler-dealer, which has at times angered members of her party; this could help explain why almost 1 in 5 Democrats also held an unfavorable view of Kotek in the Emerson poll.
Having served as speaker from 2013 to early 2022, Kotek is also linked to outgoing Democratic Gov. Kate Brown, who held the state’s top job for most of the same period, after becoming governor following Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber’s 2015 resignation. But Brown is leaving office unpopular amid complaints about lengthy school closures because of the COVID-19 pandemic and concerns about conditions in Portland, which has suffered from vandalism, public disorder and a lack of affordable housing. In the second quarter of 2022, 55 percent of Oregon’s registered voters disapproved of Brown and only 40 percent approved, according to Morning Consult’s polling, so the incumbent may serve as an anchor weighing down Kotek and encouraging voters — even Democrats and left-leaning independents – to consider their alternatives.
With a month to go, Drazan is far from certain to win, but for a Republican to be in a toss-up race for Oregon governor presents the best opportunity the GOP has had since 2010, when Republican Chris Dudley, a former NBA player, narrowly lost amid that year’s red wave. This time around, we’re not really seeing the same sort of wave developing, but the dynamics of the three-way race combined with the unpopularity of Kotek and Brown may still deliver Republicans a win, ending four decades of futility.