There are real reasons for Republicans to feel optimistic about winning the Oregon governor’s race for the first time in four decades, including a new poll suggesting former Canby State Representative Christine Drazan could hold a slim lead over former House Speaker Tina Kotek and longtime Democratic state Senator Betsy Johnson, who is running a dark-horse non-affiliated campaign.
In the results released Friday, Drazan held a 1-point lead over Kotek, with 32.4% of respondents saying they would vote for Drazan, 31.4% choosing Kotek and 24.4% opting for Johnson. Johnson released her own poll Wednesday that showed her in a neck-and-neck race with Kotek — and Drazan polling a distant third.
The internal poll memo produced for the national Republican State Leadership Committee also suggests that Republicans have a “rare opportunity” to win in November, thanks to low opinions of President Joe Biden and Oregon’s Democratic leaders.
“Voters across Oregon have had enough and view Republican state legislators as the remedy to get the state out of a downward spiral and back on the right track,” committee spokesman Zach Kraft said in a statement.
All 60 House districts and 30 Senate districts are new this year following last year’s post-census legislative redistricting. Democrats controlled redistricting in the Oregon Legislature, and independent analyses suggest the new districts disproportionately benefit Democratic candidates.
But polls, both the internal poll released by Republicans and earlier public surveys, show that a majority of Oregon voters aren’t pleased with the state’s direction. More than 57% of the 600 likely voters surveyed by national GOP polling firm Cygnal between June 28-30 said the state was on the wrong track.
When asked about generic legislative candidates, nearly 35% said they would definitely vote for a Republican, and another 12% said they would probably vote for the Republican. The same numbers were 10.5% and 32% for Democrats, giving Republicans a nearly 5-point lead on generic legislative ballots.
About 52% of respondents said they disapproved of the job legislative Democrats were doing, and 57% said government would work better with a more partisan balance.
“There’s definitely a path for Republicans to a majority, and I don’t think that path has been there for the last 20 years,” said Senate Minority Leader Tim Knopp, Republican from Bend.
“It’s clear that Oregonians want change and balance,” he added in a statement. “They are fed up with higher prices, lower standards of living, and rampant homelessness and crime. Democrat leadership has made all these issues worse over the last decade of one-party rule.”
About 32% of the respondents were Republicans and 39% were Democrats — slightly lower than the parties’ vote share in the most recent midterm election, when Democrats made up 41% of the electorate and Republicans 33%.
“Tina Kotek and House Democrats have been responsible for the last decade of Oregon decline,” House Republican Leader Vikki Breese-Iverson said. “Their status quo has led to Oregonians struggling under an extra layer of inflation, with higher gas prices and higher costs of living than other parts of the country.”
Nonaffiliated voters, the largest group in the state, have lower voting rates than those who choose a party, and they turn out at even lower rates in non-presidential elections.
Their numbers have exploded in Oregon in recent years thanks to the state’s motor voter law, which automatically registers eligible voters when they obtain or renew their driver’s license.
Since the law took effect in 2016, the number of non-affiliated voters in Oregon has increased by more than 335,000, while the number of registered Democrats grew by just 35,000 and Republicans by 15,000 in the same period.
Democrats have controlled both chambers of the Legislature since 2007, except for a two-year period beginning in 2011 when the House was split 30-30. This year, Democrats hold 37 of 60 seats in the House and 18 of 30 in the Senate.
Dru Draper, political director for the House Republicans’ Evergreen Oregon PAC, said almost 20 House districts are in play for Republicans in November, including former Democratic strongholds in Salem, Clackamas County and Hood River.
“The number of seats that we’re looking at is a lot bigger than it normally is because of how badly things are going,” he said.
That’s despite structural advantages Democrats had going into the election because of their control over redistricting, he said.
“We’re kind of playing a rigged game because of what the Democrats did during redistricting, but a pissed-off electorate isn’t gonna let that get in the way,” Draper said.
House Majority Leader Julie Fahey, from Eugene, and Dan Torres, the director of the Democratic Caucus’s FuturePAC, were in meetings throughout the day Thursday and unavailable for interviews.
Democratic candidates are running in 55 of the 60 House districts, and Fahey has previously praised this year’s slate of Democratic candidates for their enthusiasm and diversity.
Republicans start from a stronger position in the Senate, where only 16 seats are on the ballot in the fall: 15 for four-year terms and one to finish the last two years of a term.
Five of the senators who don’t have to run for re-election this year are Democrats, while eight are Republicans and one is an independent who previously ran as a Republican.
That means Republicans only need to win seven races in November to tie the Senate and eight to win a majority. Knopp, the minority leader, said Republicans’ path to a majority runs through districts in Salem, Keizer, Medford, Hood River, Clackamas County and Lane County.
They’re defending three Republican-held seats in close districts now represented by senators Chuck Thomsen, Kim Thatcher and long-time Canby-area representative Bill Kennemer.
Kennemer was “gerrymandered” out of Canby’s state Senate district last year and into one he says was drawn to favor his opponent, Democratic Gladstone Representative Mark Meek.
Thompsen’s 26th District, which now includes Canby, is one of the most evenly divided in the state — with a near-equal number of registered Republicans and Democrats. It will feature a face-off between current Republican Representative Daniel Bonham and his Democratic opponent, Raz Mason, both from The Dalles.
Oliver Muggli, executive director of the Senate Democratic Leadership Fund, said Democrats are prepared for a tough November election because the party that controls the White House usually struggles in midterm elections.
But he said Senate Democrats have the most qualified slate of candidates they’ve had in years. Along with defending current Democratic districts, they hope to unseat Thatcher and Kennemer.
“Many of them have a real track record of success winning tough districts and are not shying away from getting out and talking to voters and putting in the legwork all the way through to win tough campaigns,” Muggli said.
In the new poll released by Johnson’s campaign, about a third of registered Oregon voters polled picked Kotek as their choice for governor, while another 30% chose Johnson, while Drazan drew 23% support. The poll showed 15% of voters remain undecided, down from 41% in March.
The poll of 600 Oregon voters had a margin of error of +/- 4 percentage points, putting Kotek and Johnson in a statistical tie for first. It also puts Drazan in a statistical tie with Johnson for second place.
Its results come far ahead of November’s election, with campaign season generally considered to begin in earnest around Labor Day.
A separate poll conducted at the end of May by Nelson Research, an Oregon-based public opinion research firm, showed vastly different results with Drazan and Kotek leading with 30% and 28% respectively and Johnson trailing with 19%.
A still earlier poll conducted by GS Strategy Group in May, but not publicly released by the firm until Wednesday showed Kotek with 34% support, Drazan with 24% and Johnson with 22%.
The Johnson campaign released the poll results Wednesday to highlight how Johnson has surged in popularity while her opponents have held steady.
Trey Rosser, Drazan’s campaign manager, questioned the accuracy of the poll and pointed out that Johnson’s campaign opted to release the poll results on the same day that Willamette Week reported that Johnson had tried to claim legislative immunity after being sued by a driver she rear-ended in 2013.
“Both public and our own internal polls have consistently shown that Christine Drazan is well positioned to win this race,” Rosser said. “We look forward to Christine continuing to earn the support of more and more Oregonians as she has an opportunity to share her vision for leading our state in a new direction.”
Johnson remains under scrutiny for her handling of the 2013 car crash in which Johnson, then a Democratic state senator, rear-ended and injured another driver who was coming to a stop at a red light in Scappoose.
At the time, news reports focused on Johnson’s serious injuries which caused her to miss more than a month of the Legislative session and use a wheelchair for six months.
It escaped notice that Johnson, through her lawyers, subsequently cited her position as a state lawmaker to argue that the driver Johnson rear-ended, Melissa Gallentine, could not sue Johnson for personal injury because she was driving as part of her official work duties.
“This is a clear abuse of legislative immunity,” Drazan said on social media this week. “No one should be above accountability or above the law, especially those in power. Oregonians are tired of self-serving politicians. We deserve leaders who follow the law and tell the truth.”