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Poor ratings, third-party candidate could hand Oregon gubernatorial race to GOP

While the chances of Oregon electing a Republican governor are high, it may not be because of changing attitudes in a state long controlled by Democrats.

PORTLAND, Ore. (CN) — The hype from Oregon is not for nothing: For the first time since 1987, Oregon may find itself with a Republican governor. But the potential party flip may not be because Oregon is becoming more Republican.

If the Oregon governor's mansion turns red Nov. 8, it may be because voters' widespread dissatisfaction with Democratic incumbent Governor Kate Brown and because the field is a bit more crowded — with Democrat Tina Kotek, Republican Christine Drazan and nonaffiliated candidate Betsy Johnson all vying for the governorship.

“I think it's an interesting race in part because there is a third-party candidate, which always throws off the normal dynamics of an election in our system,” said political science professor Chris Shortell from Portland State University, noting that Johnson’s candidacy has made polling and predictions more volatile as it usually does when a viable third-party candidate is involved.

As of Friday, polls suggest Kotek and Drazan are neck and neck at 39.1%, while Johnson trails behind with 13.8% . So far, Johnson has refused to pull out of the race.

Shortell said while third-party candidates can win elections in theory, it seems unlikely to happen in Oregon this year. “What we're looking at right now, I think, is a question of how many voters that are voting for Johnson would have otherwise supported Kotek and how many would have otherwise supported Drazan,” Shortell said.

The answer to this question is complicated, since the majority of registered voters in Oregon are neither Democrat nor Republican. According to Oregon’s Elections Division data for registered voters, only 34% of Oregonians are registered Democrat while about 25% are Republican as of October. The remaining 41% of voters either register as “unaffiliated” or with a different third party.

“I don't think that I would say that Oregon is becoming more conservative,” Shortell said, noting there are typical and atypical aspects of this year’s election. The incumbent president’s party almost always does worse during midterm elections, especially when issues such as inflation are at the forefront of voter’s minds. According to a poll from Emerson College, 52% of Drazan supporters say the economy is their top priority going into November.

“What's atypical about it, I think, is that we have a really strong anti-incumbency feeling right now,” Shortell said. “I think people feel unhappy with the current state of affairs and when that's the case, voters are likely to take it out on the party in power. In Oregon, that party in power is the Democrats. It's surprising that Republicans have not been able to better capitalize on those underlying dynamics.”

According to Morning Consult, Governor Brown currently has the worst approval ratings of any Democratic governor in the country. As such, the feelings of dissatisfaction might hurt Kotek’s chance of winning the state office this November, particularly since she’s often compared to Brown.

“Kate Brown, Tina Kotek, and Betsy Johnson have been a part of the same team wearing the same partisan jersey for more than a decade,” said Trey Rosser, Drazan’s campaign manager, in a statement. Up until recently, Johnson has been affiliated with the Democratic Party and backs Democratic stances such as the right to an abortion.

However, Johnson’s stance on climate change policies and gun regulation have pulled her away from those of Democrats, agreeing in part with Drazan on the desire to reverse Brown’s order to state agencies to reduce greenhouse emissions.

Drazan also has less government experience than Kotek and Johnson, having served three years as a state lawmaker and as the former House Republican leader. As a lawmaker, Drazan led walkouts from the state Capitol in 2020 to prevent a cap-and-trade plan that would have raised energy costs for Oregon timber mills and other manufacturers. Johnson also opposed the bill. The same protest tactic is now under review for Oregon Measure 113, which would amend the Oregon Constitution to bar legislators with 10 unexcused absences from floor sessions from running for another term.

What makes Kotek stand out from Drazan and Johnson also strengthens her appeal with Oregonians, who face a widespread homelessness crisis. As outlined by The Oregonian/OregonLive’s endorsement of the Democratic candidate, Kotek's plan for Oregon’s housing and homelessness crises has specific goals and timelines and has launched programs to provide temporary housing while sponsoring a bill to prohibit larger encampments in residential areas.

Shortell said a win by Drazan would reflect a national dynamic of voters responding to the party of the present and the trend of where national issues inform what voters do at the state level. It would likely be indicative of widespread Republican success nationally, he said.

“I think that if Johnson wasn't in the race, it would not be as close of a race as it is at the moment between Kotek and Drazan,” Shortell said. “We often see races tightening in the polling as we get closer to Election Day, and it doesn't necessarily reflect the change in underlying attitudes of voters than it does voters finally making a decision that they previously hadn't made.”

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