Oregon’s three-way race for governor is a toss-up just about a month out to the election. That’s the current call of two national, non-partisan political research outlets that watch, analyze and make forecasts about elections.
The Cook Political Report and “Sabato’s Crystal Ball” at the University of Virginia Center for Politics say the gubernatorial race between Republican Christine Drazan, independent Betsy Johnson and Democrat Tina Kotek is one of the most-watched races in the country in 2022.
Oregon is generally considered a blue state. It has not elected a Republican governor in 35 years. Both outlets say that any one of the candidates could win and that Johnson is the x-factor.
Kyle Kondik, Managing Editor at Sabato’s Crystal Ball, says most independent candidates poll better than they perform. And while he says that could still happen with Johnson, there are signs it won’t.
“She does have a real campaign effort. And so it has led to this interesting situation where you’ve got, you know, the former the former leaders of the two respective party caucuses in the in the Oregon legislature, and then also a state senator who’s a Democrat, you know, Democrat, but is now an independent,” said Kondik.
Cook had the race as a “Lean Democrat” until Sept. 16 when it changed to “toss-up.”
Jessica Taylor, Senate and Governors Editor for Cook, says Johnson’s background may appeal to voters on both sides.
“There’s things she’s liberal on. There’s things she’s conservative on, so I think she can pull from both candidates and we’re seeing that,” said Taylor.
Both say Johnson is within striking distance of the Drazan and Kotek, but they also agree that her presence helps Drazan more than Kotek.
Kondik also notes that Oregon has more Democrats, so there’s a larger pool of those voters for Johnson to pull from.
Taylor puts it more directly.
“Drazan’s path to victory again… really, there’s no path without Johnson in the race,” Taylor said.
Taylor says both Drazan and Kotek are polling in the 30s while Johnson is in the 20s.
“So it really feels like a jump ball, at least particularly between the Republican Christine Drazan and the Democrat Tina Kotek,” said Taylor, adding that she’d feel more confident in Johnson if the independent was polling in the 30s.
Kondik adds that even if Johnson is polling as much as she is now, voters tend to move toward their partisan corners closer to election day.
“The focus of the electorate starts to move more toward the two major party candidates, which I think is a challenge for any third-party candidate,” Kondik said.
Regardless of who wins, both Kondik and Taylor say don’t be surprised if the victor only brings in about 40% of the vote.
Taylor says Cook won’t make a final prediction of who wins, but Sabato’s Crystal Ball will. And Kondik says that’s going to be a tough one.
“To me, it seems close enough that that’s one where I’m worried about getting a result right,” said Kondik. “But yeah, we will we will do that. Although that’s definitely one where I think that we may have a hard time offering handicap until right before the election.”
Homeless issue may be the decider
The one of the top issues that could decide this race may not be abortion or guns or the economy. Taylor says it’s the homeless crisis in Oregon and, in particular, in Portland.
And she says that issue’s effect on the governor’s race is unique to Oregon.
“It’s one of the major issues in a race. And that’s something that I’m not seeing,” said Taylor, referencing that most other races are focusing on crime in general.
“And, you know, the question is, do voters look at, ‘OK, we’ve had a Democratic governor, we have a Democratic mayor. Is it time to try something different with either a Republican or independent?’ I think those are things that could be working against Kotek, even though here she’s laid out a plan,” Taylor added.
Both Taylor and Kondik agree that the issue of abortion and a woman’s right to choose benefits Kotek, but Kondik says Kotek is also going after both Drazan on Johnson on guns.
“Kotek is now really hitting Johnson on gun issues, especially trying to get some of those maybe middle of the road voters that might see an appeal,” said Taylor.
All three have a voting record
Kondik says Drazan’s campaign appears to be trying to down play her Republican party affiliation, but that inflation and crime are generally the two issues that are driving a lot of Republican campaigns nationwide.
And Johnson is basically having to punch in both directions in the hopes of grabbing both Democrat and Republican voters, Kondik said.
“One other I just think interesting aspect of this election is that not only do you have three major candidates in this race as opposed to just two, but all three of them are people who recently served in the state legislature. And so they all would have voted on some of the same issues over time. And so everyone’s got a voting record,” said Kondik.
Brown and Trump effects
Two politicians who are not on the ballot at all in 2022 could have an impact on who wins.
Kondik and Taylor say Gov. Kate Brown’s unpopularity doesn’t help Kotek and may also hurt Johnson. Taylor notes that Drazan’s ads have worked to tie them both to the Democrats.
And then there’s Donald Trump. What happens if the former president declares his 2024 candidacy before the midterms?
“I think it would it really would supercharge Democratic turnout,” said Taylor.