The three candidates for Oregon governor are Democrat Tina Kotek (left), Betsy Johnson, running unaffiliated (center) and Republican Christine Drazan (right). (Campaign photos)

As counties tallied primary ballots, one fact became evident: the next Oregon governor will be a woman with legislative experience.

Everything else about the race is still up in the air.

Most years, it’s a safe assumption that Democrats will hold onto the governor’s office, as they have since 1986. Registered Democrats far outnumber Republicans, who have only won one statewide race since 2000. 

But a majority of Oregonians polled this year say the state is on the wrong track, which could spell trouble for former House Speaker Tina Kotek, the Democratic nominee. And it’s too early to tell whether Betsy Johnson, a former Democratic state senator now running a nonaffiliated campaign, will siphon more votes from Kotek or the Republican nominee, former House Minority Leader Christine Drazan, or whether she can win herself.

A poll of 516 voters released Wednesday by Salem-based Nelson Research shows Drazan leading in a competitive race with about 29.5% support, 27.5% for Kotek and 19.4% for Johnson. Nearly a quarter of voters were undecided when asked between May 25 and 27. The survey sample included a slightly higher share of Republican voters and lower share of Democratic voters than have participated in recent midterm elections, and its margin of error was 4.3%.

Kotek did better than expected in a Democratic primary with 15 candidates, winning more than 56% of the statewide vote and outperforming runner-up Tobias Read, the state treasurer, by about 24 points. The sole publicly released pre-election poll, conducted for the Read campaign, showed a much tighter race. 

Those primary results speak to Kotek’s popularity among Democratic voters, said pollster John Horvick with DHM Research. And it could undermine the proposition that Johnson will be able to peel away Democratic voters from the party’s nominee because of her own past in the Democratic party. 

“Johnson may well be able to do that,” he said. “But if I were Johnson or Kotek looking at the results of the Democratic primary, I’d say, well, maybe that’s gonna be more difficult than I thought.” 

Oregonians have gotten used to relatively low-key summers between the end of the primary and the general election in the fall, but Johnson’s presence in the race will likely change that, Horvick said. Johnson must gather about 24,000 signatures from Oregon voters by Aug. 30 to make it on the ballot, and her opponents won’t cede the summer to her. 

“She’s got a ton of money to spend, and I think there’s going to be a real strong need for Democrats and Republicans to try to define her before she gets to define herself,” Horvick said. “I would guess that there’s going to be more activity, advertising and all that sort of stuff happening early on than typical.”

The race is likely to become the most expensive in Oregon history. Johnson had raised $8.6 million; Drazan, almost $2.7 million and Kotek $2.5 million by the end of May. With their primaries over, Kotek and Drazan will start taking in more money and gathering endorsements from labor unions, corporate PACs, activist organizations and party leaders that stayed neutral during the primary. 

“It will have to be the most expensive campaign for governor in Oregon’s history,” said Rebecca Tweed, a Republican political consultant. “If each candidate could raise it, we could easily see upwards of $20 million each spent on their campaigns.”

In contrast, Gov. Kate Brown and Republican nominee Knute Buehler raised a combined $36 million in 2018, the most expensive race to date. 

National organizations, most notably the Democratic Governors Association and Republican Governors Association, are also getting involved. 

The Democratic association, which spent more than $2 million backing Brown in her re-election bid in 2018, has so far contributed the equivalent of $65,000 in cash and surveys to a political action committee, Oregonians for Ethics, which is campaigning against Johnson.

Sam Newton, deputy communications director for the association, said it was excited to support Kotek. 

“She has delivered time and time again to make Oregon a more affordable and safer place to live and raise a family, and she’d also be the first out lesbian governor in the country,” he said. “In contrast, both Christine Drazan and Betsy Johnson would take Oregon backwards, with their failed records of supporting plans that make it easier for criminals to carry guns, blocking climate action despite devastating wildfires and making life worse for working families.”

In the aftermath of last week’s massacre at an elementary school in Texas, Democrats have pointed to Johnson’s record on guns. She’s a gun owner and voted against legislation in 2015 to expand background checks and in 2017 to allow family or law enforcement to petition a court to temporarily block a person’s access to guns if they fear that person will hurt themself or others. 

Republicans, meanwhile, are seeking to describe Johnson as an ideological successor to Brown and no different than Kotek. With the Supreme Court likely to overturn Roe v Wade this summer, Johnson’s longstanding support of abortion rights could alienate potential Republican voters. 

“Tina Kotek and Betsy Johnson have been in lockstep with Joe Biden’s and Governor Brown’s failed agenda that has ignored some of the state’s biggest problems,” said Kaitlin Price, a deputy press secretary for the Republican Governors Association. “Democrats have held the governorship since 1987; from skyrocketing crime, to record levels of homelessness, Democrats had their chance to address these crises that have run residents out of the state for years and failed to do so.” 

Johnson, for her part, is depicting Kotek and Drazan as political extremists and herself as a moderate alternative more in line with voters. 

 “It’s the Goldilocks principle applied to political candidates – one is too much, one is too little, one is just right,” Tweed said. 

Kotek easily won her primary despite Read and other candidates describing her as out-of-touch and too progressive. Read has since endorsed her.

Drazan, meanwhile, was the establishment choice for governor, besting other candidates who leaned into social war issues like school curricula, abortion and false claims of election fraud. Paul Gronke, a political science professor at Reed College, said Drazan was smart to keep her distance from those issues. 

“I think it was just smart to stay away from some of those divisive issues,” he said. “It may not have helped her with some of the hardcore base, but you just can’t win in Oregon with that hardcore base.” 

Gronke said the smart money would be on Kotek because Oregon still leans liberal, or liberal-libertarian, even if national trends don’t look good for Democrats this year. He noted that Oregon’s recent gubernatorial races have been relatively competitive, and said Drazan probably would do better in a head-to-head matchup with Kotek than in a three-way primary. 

“I would think in a two-party race that Drazan has the potential to be a lot more competitive,” he said. “It’s hard for me to see how Johnson is not going to hurt Drazan on balance more than Kotek, because people who want to vote against the ruling party or the dominant party have two choices.”

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