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Independent candidate upends Oregon race for governor and gives GOP an opening

<i>AP</i><br/>From left
From left

By Maeve Reston, CNN

Betsy Johnson casts herself as the candidate for Oregon governor who will speak for voters who are “fed up” with homeless encampments and trash-strewn streets and tired of watching Republicans and Democrats “fight like two cats in a sack.”

The former Democratic state senator, now running as an independent, likes to boast that she is not campaigning as “Miss Congeniality” and promises to govern from the center. Johnson argues that the policies of Democratic gubernatorial nominee Tina Kotek — the former state House speaker who appeared at a private fundraising reception with President Joe Biden on Saturday — would leave the state “woke and broke,” while stating that her Republican opponent, Christine Drazan, a former state House minority leader, would endanger women’s reproductive rights.

“I am the champion and the voice right now of people who feel disrespected, disenfranchised, looked down on, and they’re sick of it,” the bespectacled former helicopter pilot said in a telephone interview earlier this week, before Biden’s arrival in the state. “I have always been pro-choice, pro-cop, pro-change, pro-accountability and pro-alternative to the status quo. The status quo was getting us no place, and the only people that were suffering were Oregonians.”

The resonance of that message from a moderate former Democrat with deep financial support in Oregon’s business community has upended the state’s race for governor this year — unnerving Democrats by creating a scenario under which Republicans could capture the office for the first time in 40 years.

Two years after Portland lived through 100 nights of protests against police brutality and racial injustice — demonstrations that often led to violence — the state’s largest city is still attempting to repair its image. That recovery process was hindered by the economic fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic that led to shuttered businesses. And the challenge for Democrats has been compounded by the financial stressors that many voters and business owners are now feeling as a result of inflation. Portland also had a record number of homicides in 2021 and is grappling with a wave of gun violence that has raised concerns about crime.

The race between Johnson, Kotek and Drazan to replace term-limited Democratic Gov. Kate Brown was already unusual as a matchup between three women in what could be a record year for female gubernatorial hopefuls.

But Johnson was also able to pull off a rare feat for an independent candidate by keeping pace in fundraising with the major-party nominees by drawing on her relationships with business leaders. Nike co-founder Phil Knight donated $3.75 million to Johnson’s campaign before appearing to shift his allegiances to Drazan with a $1 million contribution earlier this month.

Democratic vote divided

Johnson’s presence in the race has been an unexpected boon for Republicans, who only comprise about a quarter of the electorate. Democrats make up about 34% of the state’s voters and nonaffiliated Oregonians account for nearly 35%, according to the most recent figures from the Oregon secretary of state.

Jim Moore, a political science professor at Pacific University, said Johnson appears to be siphoning more votes from Democrats, creating what is essentially a tie between Kotek and Drazan in a state that Biden won by 16 points in 2020.

“Voters are growing increasingly unhappy with what the Democrats are doing, but they’re not willing to go to the Republicans who’ve gone further to the right,” said Moore. That has led to support for Johnson among disaffected Democrats and the state’s growing ranks of unaffiliated voters.

“There’s just a frustration that life overall appears to be getting harder,” Moore added. “So many people have come to Oregon — or grew up here — and say, ‘Yes, I get paid less than other places, but the quality of life is amazing.’ And they’re seeing that quality of life drop.”

Drazan, a social conservative and an opponent of abortion rights, has also centered her message around the idea that the state needs greater balance in government as it attempts to address the rise in homelessness, the affordability of housing and achievement gaps students are facing as a result of school closures during the pandemic. Drazan has also criticized the relaxation of certain high school graduation requirements as she argues for a parental bill of rights — echoing the message from Republicans, such as Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who will campaign with her in Oregon next week.

“We have had single-party control for a decade, which means that we have had the legislature really, truly fail to hold the governor to account, and likewise we’ve had the governor fail to hold the legislature to account,” she said during a recent debate hosted by KOBI-TV and Southern Oregon University. “We need balance. We need commonsense solutions that are durable — with long term value.”

At a Portland fundraiser for Kotek on Saturday, Biden highlighted Drazan’s opposition to abortion rights and also warned against “MAGA Republicans” and “election deniers” running in races across the country. He invoked former President Donald Trump’s name as he lambasted his influence on state legislatures.

“As long as Trump controls the Republican Party, he’s going to have an incredible impact on state legislative bodies” as well as state government, Biden said. “You’re a progressive state, you’ve always been ahead of the curve. Stay ahead of the curve and elect Tina.”

Kotek has said that Drazan demonstrated obstructionist tendencies when she led a legislative walkout in 2020 to protest a climate bill. The Democrat has argued that Drazan’s move effectively killed legislation that would have advanced the state’s efforts to improve homelessness, among other issues.

“Tina called for a homelessness state of emergency almost three years ago, but Representative Christine Drazan literally walked off the job — blocking millions of dollars for emergency homeless shelters and affordable housing construction,” Katie Wertheimer, Kotek’s communications director, said in a statement.

“Oregonians are justifiably frustrated and want real solutions to homelessness, crime, and the cost of living,” Wertheimer added. “Tina will do what Kate Brown couldn’t or wouldn’t, and finally declare that state of emergency, and she will hire crews to clean up the trash. She is the only trusted leader in this race bringing forward real plans that will deliver results.”

Drazan defended the rationale for the walkout at the time, saying it was not the time for cap-and-trade policies “because we cannot prevent these costs from being passed on — not to big companies, not utilities — but just straight down the line to Oregonians.”

“Homelessness, crime, affordability, and education all dramatically worsened during her time in power,” Drazan campaign spokesperson John Burke said of Kotek. “Oregonians have had enough of her excuses and her failed agenda. That’s why they’re going to elect Christine Drazan as their next governor.”

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CNN’s Betsy Klein contributed to this report.

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