With just over a month until the 2022 elections, other news organizations like the Cook Political Report have followed our lead and shifted Oregon’s gubernatorial race to Tossup status. At first glance, this might seem unusual – Oregon is a firmly Democratic state federally, and Republicans haven’t won a gubernatorial race here since 1982. But looking beneath the surface shows a much more competitive state – and environment – than might otherwise be expected.
Oregon Gubernatorial Races are Shockingly Competitive
Oregon’s reputation as a federal Democratic stronghold is well-earned. In the last three presidential elections, Democrats have carried it by an average of 13 percentage points – well above the 3.5% they averaged nationally in those elections.
But in statewide elections, it’s a different story. In the last four gubernatorial races, Democrats have only won by an average of 5.2% – and they haven’t crossed 51% of the vote in any of them. In fact, since 1982 (the last time Democrats lost a gubernatorial race in the state), Democrats have only cleared 51% twice – in 1986 and 1998.
On average, Oregon gubernatorial races are competitive. Over the last ten elections, Democrats have won 51.3% of the vote on average and Republicans have won 42.8%. This is an average Democratic margin of victory of 8.4%. If you take out 1998 – the clear outlier here – that drops to 49.8%-44.3%, or 5.5%. The stability of Oregon – competitive races, but consistent outcomes – is somewhat remarkable, in fact.
Looming over the race is the unpopularity of incumbent Democrat Kate Brown. While Brown, the former Secretary of State who took office in 2015 after the resignation of disgraced ex-Governor John Kitzhaber, did achieve election victories in 2016 and 2018, she has struggled to define herself in positive terms. With a disapproval rating of 55% and only 40% of voters approving of her performance, she is far and away the least popular Governor in the country.
On the Democratic side, former House Speaker Tina Kotek – the architect of Oregon’s congressional gerrymander – hopes to keep the state in the blue column. Her Republican opponent is Christine Drazan, who was House Minority Leader. Both Kotek and Drazan resigned their seats to focus fully on their run for Governor.
The third candidate – and the most interesting one – is Betsy Johnson, a former Democratic member of the State Senate. Johnson was known as a moderate-to-conservative Democrat, willing to work with Republicans and vote against Democratic priorities. Johnson was so popular within her district that she not only faced no opposition, but actually won the Republican primary as a write-in in her final race in 2018. Like Kotek and Drazan, she resigned to run for Governor. She argues that Kotek is too far-left and Drazan is too far-right; polling indicates she’s in third, pulling around 20% of voters. It’s unclear who Johnson might peel off more voters from; despite her former party affiliation, her policy focuses (crime, homeless, and education) are ones that you might expect to appeal more to Republicans.
On top of the gubernatorial race, Oregon is one of the few states in the country with a truly competitive legislative fight. Thanks to a legislative compromise where the state’s Congressional districts were gerrymandered to favor Democrats, while the legislature was drawn to be competitive, the Oregon State Senate and, to a lesser extent, the House, are both viable pickup opportunities for Republicans.
Back in June, we rated the Oregon State Senate as Leans Democratic. Currently, election forecasting site CNalysis ranks the State Senate as Tilts Democratic and the State House as Leans Democratic. It would be likelier for Republicans to achieve a tie in the State Senate than it would for them to win it outright; a tie would mean that both sides would need to agree to a power-sharing agreement, as the state lacks a Lieutenant Governor or any other means to resolve a tie. The House remains a trickier chamber to claim, but only slightly so; both have median seats that are of similar partisan leans.
It’s theoretically possible, then, that Republicans could garner a trifecta in Oregon – although this remains quite unlikely, given the state’s bent and the relatively even national environment, the possibility isn’t worth dismissing out of hand.
Ultimately, it’s hard to bet against Oregon’s partisan baseline. Such a consistent record of Democratic wins, no matter how narrow, makes it hard to truly expect Republicans to flip the state. However, there’s no denying that as of right now, this race is a Tossup. It remains to be seen if Oregon breaks Republican hearts yet again, or if it bucks the trend and returns to the red column for the first time in decades.