An Independent with a Chance

When resigned Oregon state House Speaker Tina Kotek comfortably won the Democratic gubernatorial primary in May, she, like most other political observers, believed an easy general election win was on the political horizon in her quest to succeed term-limited Democratic Governor Kate Brown.

Her path to the Governor’s office has turned from smooth to rocky, however, and Ms. Kotek is in danger of losing the general election, maybe not to Republican nominee Christine Drazan, the former state House Minority Leader, but rather to Democrat-turned-Independent resigned state Senator Betsy Johnson.

Though we haven’t seen a new poll of this race since late June, a pair of surveys, conducted individually by a Republican and Democratic firm, arrived at the same set of conclusions. That is, all three of the candidates could win the general election, and Ms. Kotek is not expanding her support base beyond the low 30s.

Back in June, the Republican Cygnal polling firm (6/28-30; 600 OR likely voters; text-to-web) found Ms. Drazen leading Ms. Kotek, 32-31%, with Ms. Johnson (I) receiving a huge 24% vote share. In this poll, by a margin of 36:57% the respondents believe the state is on the wrong track. 

The Democratic research firm GS Strategy Group, polling for the committee that is supporting Ms. Johnson’s Independent run (6/23-29; 600 OR likely general election voters; live interview), taken within the same relative time factor as the Cygnal poll, and with an identical-sized sampling universe, also found a key similarity. The GS survey posted Ms. Kotek to a similar 33% support. The GS findings differed greatly after that, however, finding Ms. Johnson in a close second position at 30% preference, and Ms. Drazen dropping to 23%. 

The Johnson Independent candidacy is not a statement candidacy in that she clearly has a legitimate chance to win a three-way race. The aforementioned polling, now two months old, shows viability. The latest campaign finance reports for the period ending August 24th, as the Ballotpedia organization reports, reveals that Ms. Johnson is the candidate who has raised the most money at $7.5 million. Ms. Kotek has accumulated $6.8 million for the campaign, and Ms. Drazan, $5.8 million. Therefore, all three major contenders have the ability to adequately communicate their message.

The fact that Ms. Johnson is running strongly both in polling and campaign finance helps her overcome the biggest problem that minor party or non-affiliated candidates almost always face: that is, not being viewed as credible enough to win. Therefore, though some may draw significant polling numbers, come election time they fall back into mid-single digits because many voters who might consider a candidate other than a major party nominee doesn’t want to “throw their vote away” on a non-contender.

Ms. Johnson, who resigned from the legislature in 2021 after serving just over 20 years as a Democrat in the Oregon House and Senate, is proving she can win and attempts to craft a strategy that puts her in the center of the political mainstream.

She does so by being plain spoken, and in ads, says she “refuses to stand still while Oregon goes to hell in a hand basket.” She then takes on both parties as extreme. In another ad, however, she professes wanting to take good ideas from both parties in order to solve the Portland homeless crisis.

In her just released ad, Ms. Johnson’s narrator says that both Kotek and Drazan are “too extreme for Oregon.” The ad cites Kotek for supporting “tent cities, rioters over police, and leading the fight to legalize hard drugs like heroin and meth.” The ad then turns on Ms. Drazan, attacking her pro-life position and support from “radical” organizations. The tag line states that “extreme left Kotek and extreme right Drazan are both too extreme for Oregon.”

Additionally, outgoing Gov. Brown as arguably the most unpopular Governor in the country. According to the most recent published Morning Consult national gubernatorial job approval ratings (completed June 30th), Ms. Brown ranks second to last in positive responses, and has the highest negative rating of any state chief executive. Her unfavorable ratings are another obstacle that Ms. Kotek must overcome as well as being a leader of the state legislature during the gravest time in the Portland homeless crisis only to see the overall situation grow worse. Therefore, she is open for attack on her leadership ability through difficult times.

As a Republican nominee, Ms. Drazan is arguably in the most difficult position considering the state’s voting history. Additionally, Democratic primary turnout was up 26% when compared to the 2018 midterm election, and while Republicans were up 20%, suggesting increased Democratic enthusiasm becomes even more difficult for a GOP candidate to overcome. Ms. Drazan’s victory path consists of Ms. Johnson being strong enough to cut into the Democratic constituency, and attempt to win a race where the electorate splits evenly into thirds. This route is certainly mathematically feasible, but unlikely in actual practice.

While the Oregon Governor’s contest is typically an easy mark for a Democratic nominee, Betsy Johnson running a serious independent campaign has certainly made the early general election period interesting. Since it appears she has staying power, this year’s Beaver State gubernatorial election has the potential to produce an unexpected result.

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