You have to wonder what would have happened in Oregon’s gubernatorial race if New York Times columnist Nick Kristof hadn’t been booted off the ballot for nonresidency back in January. Yes, the messianic air Kristof exuded when offering to come parachuting into the troubled political waters of his home state was annoying to some. But Oregon, specifically its Democratic Party, could use some “outsider” energy right now. As it stands, Democrats are in danger of losing the governorship they have held since 1986.
As confirmed by fresh polling from Morning Consult, two-term (and term-limited) incumbent governor Kate Brown is the most unpopular chief executive in the U.S. amid a widespread sense that Oregon’s political Establishment has done a poor job of handling chronic and worsening problems. These include the intertwined housing and drug-addiction crises that have made the state’s dominant city, Portland, a source of anger and embarrassment to many voters. Democratic nominee and former longtime Oregon House Speaker Tina Kotek, who is backed by unions and the party’s more-or-less dominant progressive activists, is being described by many critics as “Kate Brown 2.0,” which some of her allies resent as a slur on the LGBTQ self-identification Kotek and Brown share.
But a correlation with an unpopular incumbent is just one of Kotek’s problems in seeking to win her party’s tenth-straight governor’s race. An independent ex-Democratic state senator, Betsy Johnson, is running a well-financed campaign (she got a big chunk of change from Nike founder Phil Knight) on an outspokenly centrist platform. Johnson is probably drawing voters from both parties, but at a time when Democrats elsewhere are benefiting significantly from the backlash to the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision, Johnson offers voters a pro-choice option combined with a pro-business, get-tough-on-government message that could most hurt Kotek. And that could provide an opening for Republican nominee and legislator Christine Drazan, who won her party’s nomination as a sane alternative to multiple MAGA candidates. Drazan shows the standard GOP hostility to legalized abortion (not entirely a disadvantage in a race against two pro-choice rivals) but has promised to respect Oregon’s existing Roe-era laws.
Polls consistently show Kotek and Drazan in a close race with Johnson (who may have the most money on hand for late ads) in a distant but substantial third. All the national election forecasters call the contest a toss-up. But the risk of losing such a deep-blue state, likely alongside cries for help from Democratic constituency groups, convinced Joe Biden to go to Oregon and give Kotek a boost. It’s an interesting decision since Biden is more generally aligned with centrist Democrats who have been at odds with Kotek for years. (Biden endorsed rogue centrist congressman Kurt Schrader during his most recent trip to Oregon, shortly before Schrader lost his primary to progressive rival Jamie McLeod-Skinner.) But it’s all hands on deck for Oregon Democrats.
Biden may help lure Democrats away from support for Johnson and dramatize issue differences between Kotek and Drazan. But Kotek’s main problem may be the sour mood of Oregon voters who are susceptible to arguments from both of her challengers that it’s time for a change in Salem. The one thing we know for sure is that the next governor will be a woman with state legislative experience. And Kristof will be left wondering if he would be in charge of this race had he just spent more time in the state before endeavoring to rescue it.