Matthew Schantin Opinion: Democrats Race To Save a Blue State Gone Purple

With Election Day less than a month away, Democrats and Republicans are duking it out to secure majorities in Congress. While both parties funnel record-breaking millions of dollars into several traditional battleground states like Pennsylvania and Nevada, Democrats could lose a state they’ve won since the late 1980s – Oregon.

Though the state is all but guaranteed to re-elect longtime Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden, there’s a real possibility Oregonians might just elect their first Republican governor in nearly 35 years. Thanks to a well-funded independent spoiler candidate and an unpopular outgoing governor, Democrats are facing a tight race with serious implications as major issues like abortion are tossed to the states.

While D.C. insiders are shocked to see Oregon in play after RealClearPolitics shifted the gubernatorial election to a “toss-up,” Oregonians like myself have long seen the writing on the wall.

Conservatives in the state began gaining steam prior to the pandemic, seizing on hot-button issues like climate legislation to galvanize support from rural and moderate voters. One example was a cap-and-trade bill that had Republican legislators fleeing the state Capitol to avoid a vote and motivated the start of Timber Unity, a group strung together by right-leaning rural Oregonians who were locally famous for leading a log truck protest against the legislation.

From there, dissatisfaction continued to metastasize over the course of the pandemic. Despite ranking in the top 10 states for lowest COVID-19 cases and resulting deaths, Gov. Kate Brown had the highest disapproval ranking of any governor in the country as recently as last April, triggering three separate recall attempts that ultimately failed to make it on the November ballot.

Ahead of November, many Democrats have distanced themselves from the outgoing governor and have instead focused on promoting their own detailed plans to tackle things like tent cities and modernizing Oregon’s firefighting capabilities.

All the while, Republican nominee and former state Senate Minority Leader Christine Drazan has used Oregon’s escalating homelessness and addiction crises as evidence of failed Democratic leadership. Capitalizing on the fact that the president’s party historically loses ground during midterm elections and ongoing inflation woes, Drazan is unusually well-positioned to help flip the state red.

The Republican nominee received a further boost following state Sen. Betsy Johnson’s early decision to join the race. Johnson, who served in the legislature for over 20 years before leaving both the Democratic party and her state Senate seat, is running for the state’s top spot as an Independent. With backing from Oregon’s business community, she has taken millions of dollars from prominent business leaders and timber company owners. Johnson’s early cash advantage helped position her as the “best of both parties” and an ideal spoiler candidate to draw voters away from the other two choices.

As a result, what many pundits predicted would be a breezy general election for Democratic nominee Tina Kotek after she fought her way through a crowded primary field, has turned into one of the hottest elections in the country.

As the longest-tenured Oregon House Speaker, many Democrats have seen Kotek as the heir apparent to the governorship for several years.

While Kotek has been the ideal candidate for Democrats, more moderate voters see her as the embodiment of top-of-mind, often ignoring issues in the state given that she represents and resides in Portland. She has tried to reject this narrative, claiming her opponents will continue to create problems when it comes to guns and climate change, two traditionally salient concerns for Oregon voters given majority support for stricter gun control and protecting the state’s pristine outdoor environment. Johnson and Drazan both have “A” ratings from the NRA and support from Timber Unity with legislative records to match, offering the Democratic nominee prime campaign ads on a silver platter.

However, recent polling shows a tight two-way race between Kotek and Drazan, with each courting about a third of the vote, while Johnson’s numbers have stagnated in the upper teens. The competitiveness of this race has been reflected in the outside spending pouring in from the Republican and Democratic Governors Associations. Both have written several million-dollar checks, including a recent $1.25 million from the Democratic Governors Association last month, the single largest donation of the race.

This may be the best chance Republicans have had in decades to take back the Oregon Governor’s mansion, but with the Supreme Court’s recent Dobbs decision and a tragic shooting in Bend, a major city in the state, Kotek is trying to shift the focus back to issues that have long kept many Oregonians in lockstep with the Democratic Party.

The question now is whether Drazan and Kotek can consolidate their parties’ voters the way they consolidated support from their peers to earn their former leadership roles. President Biden recently visited Oregon while local and national Republican party organizations double down on their investment in the Republican nominee as both parties make a last minute push. National Democrats haven’t given Oregon a second thought in years, but their early oversight could cost them a key governorship at a time when state leaders, rather than federal officials, are tasked with protecting key Democratic positions.

Matthew Schantin is the project director at Firehouse Strategies and is a previous Oregon Democratic campaign operative. This article was originally published by RealClearPolitics and made available via RealClearWire.

 

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