The midterm polls continue to look bad for the Democratic Party. Yes, it’s possible that events — like, say, the overturning of Roe v. Wade — will help the party do better in November than analysts expect. For now, though, 2022 is looking like another wave election in which the president’s party will suffer big losses.
In a wave election, major surprises are possible. In 2018, for example, Republicans lost every House seat in Orange County, Calif., which had long been a symbol of suburban conservatism. In 1994, the Democratic speaker of the House, Tom Foley, shockingly lost his own district to a political neophyte.
Unless the polls improve for Democrats, they could find themselves suffering similarly unexpected losses in November. By definition, it’s hard to predict these surprises in advance. But even blue states and districts that are normally safe may not be this year.
Today, my colleague Reid Epstein offers a portrait of one such campaign: the governor’s race in Oregon. It has its own characteristics, including a third-party candidate, but many of the political themes in Oregon are also present across the country.
Biden, crime, gas prices
Almost nobody in Oregon seems to be happy.
In Portland, just 8 percent of residents think their city is on the right track, according to a May poll from Oregon Public Broadcasting. East of the Cascade Mountains, nine counties are so fed up with Democratic control of the state that they have voted to leave the state to join Idaho.
Only Democrats have served as Oregon’s governor since 1987, but the party, weighed down by soaring gas prices, inflation and President Biden’s unpopularity, is in so much trouble in this year’s midterm elections that even deep-blue Oregon is suddenly competitive.
Portland, like many other cities in the U.S., has seen a rise in homelessness and violent crime. Visiting the city’s downtown in recent years has been an exercise in navigating its sprawling homeless encampments — an issue that polling shows is top of mind for the state’s voters. And homicides jumped to at least 90 last year, from 36 in 2019.
In much of the country, that’s all Republicans need to say to fire up their voters: Joe Biden, crime and gas prices.
An independent challenge
Amid their political headwinds, Oregon Democrats have doubled down.
For governor, the party nominated Tina Kotek, a former state House speaker widely seen as a status quo candidate who would maintain Oregon’s progressive direction. Last year, she sponsored legislation that limited Oregon cities’ ability to remove homeless people’s tents from public spaces.
In typical lousy Democratic years, Oregon Democrats have overcome dissatisfaction with the party. But things are so bad now that the party has splintered: Betsy Johnson, a veteran Democratic state legislator, quit the legislature and left her party to mount an independent campaign for governor.
Johnson, a helicopter pilot whose signature Liz Claiborne eyeglasses are embedded in her campaign logo, has raised far more money than both Kotek and the Republican nominee, Christine Drazan. Johnson has also earned an array of high-profile endorsements from members of both parties. Much of her fund-raising has come from Oregon’s corporate moguls, including more than $1 million from the Nike founder Phil Knight.
Portland’s homelessness crisis is animating Johnson’s campaign. One of her TV ads shows her driving around the city’s encampments. “No more tent cities,” she says. When I spoke with her, Johnson didn’t mince words: “You can see the deterioration of the beautiful City of Roses, now the city of roaches,” she said.
Democrats say they believe Johnson will take more votes from the Republican base than from their own. But they are spending as if she is a real threat, creating a PAC to attack her as an obstacle to environmental progress and gun control. (Shortly after the Sandy Hook massacre, Johnson told a group of high school students that she owned a machine gun. She told me it was “a Cold War artifact” and said she still had it.)
The G.O.P. nominee, Drazan, is anti-abortion and pro-Trump, a change from the moderates Oregon Republicans have nominated for governor in recent years. Her campaign believes she could win the three-way race with just 40 percent of the vote — the same percentage Donald Trump took in 2020. Some Republicans in Washington, D.C., believe Drazan has a better shot of winning than their candidates in traditional battleground states like Michigan and Pennsylvania do.
Kotek and Johnson favor abortion rights — a position they both stressed following Friday’s Supreme Court decision striking down Roe v. Wade. Johnson served on the board of the local Planned Parenthood chapter, while Kotek passed legislation in 2017 that expanded state-funded abortion access.
No sure thing
Kotek is still the favorite to win. Oregon Democrats have significant structural advantages — there are just more of them than anyone else. But it’s not a sure thing, and Democrats are sweating the result for the first time in years.
When we spoke last week, Kotek tried to steer the discussion toward issues where she is aligned with Oregon’s progressive voters: environmental protections, gun control and minimum wage increases, all of which Johnson has opposed. Kotek dismissed Johnson as an elected gadfly who accomplished little during her two decades in the Oregon Legislature.
But in doing so, she sounded an awful lot like another well-credentialed Democrat who seemed to be in a race the party couldn’t lose.
“You could do what Donald Trump did and say, ‘Trust me,’ like Betsy Johnson,” Kotek said. “Or you can vote for the person who actually has a track record of accomplishment to make sure people have what they need. So I think that at the end of day, people are going to go with that.”
The next four months will determine whether she’s right.
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