Every election analyst has a state other than their home state they’re fascinated with. You could argue mine is Virginia, basically my second home state. But really, a state I’ve always been interested in is Oregon. The divide between its rural populism and urban progressivism has always fascinated me. And at the state level, that divide is even more intriguing.
Even as Oregon has moved sharply to the left at the federal level since Republicans last held the Governor’s office, the races have almost always been close. The question for Republicans now is if 2022 is finally the year they break through in the Beaver State.
The last time Republicans won a gubernatorial race in Oregon was 1982. Incumbent Governor Victor Atiyeh won an easy re-election that year, getting 61.5% of the vote and winning every county. No Republican has held the office since Atiyah’s retirement.
However, even with the leftward trends in Oregon, the Governors race has generally been a close one. Whether it’s an even year or a wave year, other than John Kitzhaber’s first re-election bid in 1998, the race has finished within 10 points. Democrats have only received more than 52% of the vote once during this span.
Now, Democrats have won all those close races. The closest of these was the 2010 race between Kitzhaber, going for an odd third term, and former NBA journeyman center Chris Dudley. Kitzhaber barely beat Dudley by more than a point, and the race wasn’t called until the early morning Oregon time.
Since that 2010 race, Kitzhaber won a larger majority in 2014 and was forced out in 2015. His replacement was Secretary of State Kate Brown, who only won by seven as Hillary Clinton was winning the state by 11. Brown won by a similar margin in the blue wave year of 2018 against moderate Republican Knute Buehler as she suffered through middling approval ratings.
Now, as we head into 2022, Oregon Republicans see this years race as their best chance since 2010 to win the Governor’s mansion.
This years race
The previously mentioned Brown is unable to run again this year, leaving both fields wide open. The Democratic field is less complicated, so we’ll start there.
Former House speaker Tina Kotek is seemingly the early favorite. No public or internal polling has been released yet in this race. Kotek has gained the most endorsements so far, mostly from her fellow state legislators. Kotek also has the backing of most of the state’s labor unions.
That doesn’t necessarily mean she’s a clear cut favorite. Current Oregon treasurer Tobias Read is in the race, and Portland mayor Ted Wheeler hasn’t put himself out of contention yet. Democrats have avoided opportunity to nominate a weak candidate though. Recently moved Pulitzer Prize winner Nicholas Kristof was removed from the ballot for not meeting the residency requirements.
The Republican field is a bit more open. 2016 nominee Bud Pierce is back, and the only poll shown had him in a very early lead. But from what I’ve heard former House Minority Leader Christine Drazan is the favored candidate of outside GOP forces. But with such an open field, and again, little polling, it’s hard to see a favorite at all in the field right now. With less than three months to go until the primary as well, the field needs to start defining itself for Republicans.
An Independent Twist
One of the key things differentiating this race is Independent candidate Betsy Johnson. Johnson, who was a Democrat in the State Senate, had a reputation for being a bit of a maverick. She was one of the most centrist Democrats, routinely voting with Republicans on certain economic issues.
Johnson is running as a centrist governor calling herself an “independent pro-choice, pro-jobs” candidate. Johnson has acquired endorsements from current and past state legislators on both sides of the aisle, including the 2018 GOP nominee Knute Buehler; It should be noted Buehler himself no longer aligns as a Republican and is now a registered independent.
In the only poll to include Johnson so far had her at 11% back in January. It should be specified, however, that the poll did not include specific candidates from either party. Rather it just gave the option of “generic Democrat” and “generic Republican”. But even so, it does show that Johnson does have a base of support – and it is one that could sway this election.
The question really becomes how much Johnson would effect either party’s nominee. Democratic strategists would argue that Johnson would take away dissatisfied swing voters in suburbs and exurbs of Oregon that Republicans desperately need to win. That would allow for Democrats to win likely just on large margins in the Portland metro and college areas.
Republicans would argue the exact opposite. They would say Johnson takes away moderate Democrats and independents in suburban areas that Democrats are more dependent on now. They can then run up margins in rural and working class counties and take the Governorship for the first time in 30 years.