Democrats have run Oregon for decades. Their time may be running out.
Dave is a Political Reporter for Semafor, joining us from the Washington Post. Sign up for Americana to get his coverage of the national political scene in your inbox twice a week.
PORTLAND, Ore. – President Biden campaigned here last week. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. is on his way. Democrats aren’t sugar-coating it: They are nervous about losing in reliably blue Oregon, and they know why they could.
When Anne Hubatch’s parents flew into Portland from Wisconsin last month, they piled into her Toyota Highlander for a tour. She drove through “the parks where the riots happened,” to prove that they hadn’t been burned away. She showed off a bustling farmer’s market and a busy part of downtown, as evidence that their daughter was not running a winery in a dystopia.
“We’re still feeling the negative impact of people thinking Portland’s been blown to shreds, that it’s still on fire,” said Hubatch, 45.
Oregon’s three-way race for governor is in large part about Portland – its increased crime, its homeless encampments, and the In-This-House-We-Believe liberalism that locals have enforced statewide. As mail ballots went out this week, Democrats fretted that they could lose a governor’s mansion they’ve held since the year the Challenger exploded, and up to three seats in Congress that their own party drew to be winnable.
“You’re a state that’s always been ahead of the curve,” Biden said at a reception for Democratic nominee Tina Kotek, 56, on Saturday. “Stay ahead of the curve and elect Tina.”
Kotek, a former state House speaker who lives in Portland, has spent most of the year trying to unite the center-left electorate that typically wins in Oregon; in 2020, Biden carried the state by 16 points.
But Republican Christine Drazan, a conservative who led walk-outs to stop some Democratic bills in Salem, has led in polls since the May primary. Democrat-turned-independent Betsy Johnson, whose strategists previously led a campaign to save a “broken” Portland, has polled in the low double digits, with most of her support coming from disgruntled Democrats and independents.
“They’re frustrated with fires and smoke, frustrated with COVID having haunted us for two years,” Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore. said after a campaign stop with Jamie McLeod-Skinner, a progressive who defeated Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore. in a May primary and is now in a close race for his seat. “They’re frustrated with a lack of affordable housing. And that frustration can be directed at whoever’s in office at the time.”
Drazan has run as a break-glass candidate who has downplayed, but not renounced, her anti-abortion views – a focus of the Democratic campaign. On Tuesday, she rallied with Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who said Drazan’s campaign could be the next “shot heard around the world,” and handed her one of the red fleece vests his campaign has turned into a uniform for electable Republicans.
She promises to declare a “state of emergency” to clear homeless encampments, and repeal a 2020 ballot measure that decriminalized possession for small amounts of drugs. Portland’s biggest-ever law enforcement budget, a reversal from its 2020 vote to cut $15 million from policing, has not stopped Drazan from denouncing the “defund the police” campaign and linking it to Kotek.
"The politicians that are elected to serve Oregonians care more about a global or national political agenda than they do about how those policies actually play on the ground,” Drazan, 50, told supporters at a fish dinner for outdoorsmen in Monroe, in central Oregon, last week. “It’s not too much to ask for our government to actually function, right?”
Republicans have felt an upset coming on in Oregon before – when they nominated a former Portland Trail Blazer in a red wave year in 2010, when a scandal around ex-Gov. John Kitzhaber’s girlfriend broke days before the 2014 election, and when Nike founder Phil Knight put $3.75 million behind the moderate Republican who challenged Gov. Kate Brown four years ago. Each time they stumbled at the finish line.
That was before the 2020 racial justice riots that dragged on for more than 100 days, and the COVID pandemic that inspired some of the country’s longest-lasting restrictions, including a year without in-person schooling. Whatever the reason, Brown’s approval ratings plummeted and she has been conspicuously absent on the campaign trail. In April, a Morning Consult poll of all 50 states named her the least popular governor in America.
"Because of Gov. Brown's draconian restrictions, in the name of ‘safety,’ guys who were working on the construction site together all day had to drive there in separate vehicles,” said Cam Hanes, 55, an endurance athlete and bow hunter who supports Drazan. “It seems like we’re gonna get a Brown 2.0 with Kotek. We don’t want that. We want a CTRL-ALT-DELETE reset.”
In debates, Johnson, 71 has adopted recognizably conservative frames to attack environmental regulations that slow new housing starts and a cap on greenhouse emissions A Kotek victory, she says, would “have us all woke and broke.”
Both candidates have tried to link Kotek to Brown, but the Democratic nominee had a difficult relationship with the governor as speaker and has not been shy about criticizing her as a candidate.
In an interview, Kotek said that the governor “wasn’t into management, wasn’t into details,” and “did nothing” when, before the pandemic, Kotek proposed more funding to build homeless shelters.
“Our governor thought it wasn't her lane,” Kotek said in an interview. “It is our lane. If Portland is not functioning well, it's bad for the whole state.” Of Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, a Democrat who has remained neutral in the race for governor, Kotek said that he “should be unhappy about how things are, and you wouldn't know from anything he says.” While Biden did not talk about police funding during his trip, Kotek has discussed it with him privately, and like him, she supports federal funding to hire 100,000 more cops around the country.
To unite Democrats, Kotek has pointed to the role Knight played, again, in funding anti-progressive candidates – first Johnson, and now Drazan. (Knight told the New York Times that he was an “anti-Tina person” interested in helping whoever could stop her.) She’s also asked voters to consider the implications of electing an anti-abortion governor in a progressive state.
In Monroe, Drazan said she’s “running for governor to solve quality of life issues, and not to fight divisive partisan issues.” But she had her limits. “If Democrats bring legislation to me that funds additional line item issues, like ‘Let's invite people in from other places to get abortions in Oregon with public funds,’ I will veto that.”
On Friday, at a meet-and-greet with business owners, Kotek heard from voters torn between the different campaigns.
“We have a housing crisis, and we have a downtown in shambles,” said Charlene Quaresma, 41, a business owner who wanted to see commercial areas re-zoned for housing. “You have all of these – you can call it homeless, you can call it crazies, but you have people gathering in these areas because there are no other people, there are no businesses.”
When Kotek left to meet Biden, Quaresma said she planned to vote for her. It was unthinkable, she said, for Oregon to stop being a “safe haven for anyone in the country to have a safe, legal abortion.”
Some Democrats think that Drazan would be in a strong position even if Johnson wasn’t running, and that Republican's improved their fortunes by selling their agenda better, not just talking about Portland. “It's not resonating anywhere near like it was in 2020,” said Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., who is retiring from a Eugene-based district that Republicans are trying to flip. “It was on the national news almost every night. It impacted the whole state. People who lived in remote rural areas would turn on the television and say, ‘Boy, our state is a mess.’”
Rob Crilly, a British reporter who covered the Biden visit for the right-leaning Daily Mail, gave his audience an even darker vision of Portland: “A coffeeshop where an oat milk latte would sell for $5 is closed, its doorway filled with sleeping bodies and the scent of urine in the morning.”
An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of the Daily Mail reporter who covered President Biden's visit to Portland.