Red wave -- or blue cave: Oregon's gubernatorial race is a "toss up"?

Can a state as blue as Oregon end up electing a Republican governor? Or even have that be a possibility? Could the 2022 midterm “red wave” actually be that large?

The answers, according to Sabato’s Crystal Ball analysts, are yes, definitely, and not quite. Oregon’s gubernatorial election could hinge more on a blue cave than a red wave. A split within Democrat ranks and a deep disaffection among voters for current governor Kate Brown has created a three-way race that might give Republicans their best Beaver State shot in 40 years:

We mentioned above that we are moving Oregon’s open-seat race from Leans Democratic to Toss-up. This is despite the state’s blue lean and the fact that Republicans have not won a gubernatorial race there since 1982. However, the state is hosting an unusual 3-way race among a trio of women who are all recent members of the state legislature: former state House Speaker Tina Kotek (D), former state House Minority Leader Christine Drazan (R), and former state Sen. Betsy Johnson, an unaffiliated, former Democrat who is more conservative than most of the members of her former party and who has been backed by Nike co-founder Phil Knight. The race sets up an unusual situation where the winner may not need to crack even 40%. Additionally, the 3 candidates all served concurrently in the state legislature, which should provide the campaigns ample opportunities to draw contrasts among the candidates. Outgoing Gov. Kate Brown (D) is deeply unpopular, and there may be some desire for change in the Beaver State. Johnson, the independent, would still be the most surprising winner, and Kotek and Drazan both will be working to try to prevent their voters from flocking to her banner. There’s just enough uncertainty here that we’re looking at the race as a Toss-up now.

I joked on Twitter that I was getting vibes from the 1998 Minnesota gubernatorial election. That resulted, famously or infamously, in the election of pro wrestler Jesse Ventura as governor after a nearly even split between Ventura, Democrat Skip Humphrey, and Republican Norm Coleman. A three-way race can produce surprising results … and not necessarily pleasantly surprising, as the next four years in Minnesota proved.

This may be even better for Republicans. The 71-year-old Johnson is running as an independent, but she’s been a moderate Democrat for most of her political career, having only switched affiliation ten months ago for this gubernatorial bid. She didn’t necessarily aim for conservatives in that declaration:

“With an election for Governor fast approaching, Oregonians are eager for a fresh start and new leadership,” she wrote. “But having to choose between another left-wing liberal promising more of the same or a right-wing Trump apologist – is no choice at all. Oregonians deserve better than the excesses and nonsense of the extreme left and radical right. Oregonians are ready to move to the middle where sensible solutions are found.”

That raises the specter of a Democrat split that could catapult Christine Drazan into the office. The Sabato analysis rightly notes that Johnson could drag Republicans behind her too, but Drazan’s not running a national-focus, Trump-esque campaign. Instead, Drazan’s campaign highlights her status as an Oregonian focused on Oregon’s issues:

That’s a killer last line, too. “If you’re looking for a third term of Kate Brown,” Drazan says with a smile, “you’ve got two great choices — Tina Kotek and Betsy Johnson.” Drazan and her team are going to push the two other candidates under the same tent as much as possible to remind Republicans and real independents of the actual choice in this race. If Drazan follows Glenn Youngkin’s winning strategies in Virginia last year, she has a good possibility of winning the race.

By the way, the red wave may still play a significant part in this election. Sabato analysts also are marking New Mexico and Nevada as toss-ups this late in the game, and New Mexico would be a stunning loss for Democrat incumbent Michelle Lujan Grisham.

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David Strom 4:01 PM on October 05, 2022