The Oregon governor’s race is a rare battle in a Democratic stronghold

Betsy Johnson is firmly behind the wheel, driving through an urban dystopia of poverty and despair.

“God knows, we need a real solution to the homelessness crisis,” he said harshly. Tent cities and trash-strewn sidewalks pass by. It will require new leadership, he continues, and a different kind of politics, one that embraces the best ideas of Democrats and Republicans, without regard to party labels.

“We don’t have to choose,” said Johnson, who is waging a likely strong bid for Oregon governor, raising hopes that the sapphire-blue state could elect a gun-loving, corporate- hugging, woke-bashing political independents as its next leader.

Or, just as surprisingly, a Republican, which hasn’t happened since Ronald Reagan was in the White House.

For all the focus on control of the House and Senate, there are 36 gubernatorial contests on the November ballot. Their import has increased as policies on abortion, guns and other issues have increasingly diverged, depending on which party holds power in a given state.

Most races are unlikely to result in a partisan shift. Democrats are poised to flip Maryland and Massachusetts after Republicans nominated Trump loyalists in those blue states.

Republicans hope to oust Democratic incumbents in Kansas, Nevada and Wisconsin, but takeover opportunities in Pennsylvania and Michigan may be out of reach after the GOP nominated far-right conservatives in those swing states.

That increased Republican interest in Oregon, which last elected a GOP governor in 1982.

Democrat Tina Kotek, the former speaker of the state House, remains the favorite to win in November, if for no other reason than that Democrats and voters stand out more than Oregon Republicans.

The math of the three-way contest, however, makes it highly possible that the next governor will be elected with less than 50% support, opening the door for either Johnson or the GOP nominee, Christine Drazan .

In theory, 35% of the vote could be enough to win and thus end years of Democratic rule on the Left Coast, from Baja California to the Canadian border.

Drazan, the former Republican leader of the state House, is running hard against one-party leadership in Salem, the state capital. “We need real leadership and real change to hold Democrats accountable,” Drazan said when the three candidates debated in July.

But the only reason he has a chance is Johnson’s presence and the hope that he can get enough votes from Kotek.

The heir to a timber fortune, Johnson served 20 years in the Legislature, representing rural Oregon as a center-right Democrat before leaving the party and resigning from the state Senate in December to focus on his unaffiliated run. as governor.

She likens herself to Goldilocks, neither too far to the left nor too far to the right, but her acerbic persona and brutal attacks on rivals suggest little of the innocent fairy tale character.

Drazan, Johnson said, “wants to be the first anti-choice governor in Oregon history,” undermining the state’s strong support for legal abortion. Kotek, who is vying to become the nation’s first governor to come out as gay, “wants to bring the culture wars into your child’s classroom. He wants us all to wake up and break.”

If ever Oregonians were hungry for something new and different, now seems to be the time, with polls showing deep dissatisfaction and the incumbent, Democrat Kate Brown, leaving office as one to less popular governors in America.

“People are very concerned and angry and anxious about the status quo,” said Len Bergstein, a public affairs consultant who has been involved in Oregon politics since the 1970s.

After deadly wildfires, years of pandemics and weeks of right-vs.-left protests that have turned parts of downtown Portland into an armed camp, “A lot of people feel like we’re lost,” Bergstein said.

Johnson hits on those failures in his TV ad touting damaged Portland and his abusive amalgamation of the two major parties. “Oregonians don’t trust the radical right,” he said. “And they fear the progressive left.”

For all that apparent frustration, however, Oregon is not Alabama or Arkansas, to name two deeply conservative bastions, and some of Johnson’s positions clearly cut against the state’s political grain.

The proud owner of a machine gun during the Cold War, he responded to the harms of gun violence by referencing the NRA’s talking points about increasing school security and strengthening services. on mental health.

His preferred way to combat climate change, improving the management of Oregon’s forests, recalls President Trump’s much-mocked suggestion that the country dig up its forests to prevent wildfires.

He sounds populist notes and promises to be a voice for the “pissed off,” but has benefited greatly from the support of CEOs and other affluents. Phil Knight, the billionaire founder of Nike and Oregon’s richest man, earns $1.75 million, helping Johnson one-up his opponents.

For his part, after years in power, Kotek has the unenviable task of convincing voters that as bad as things are, they will get better.

In the end.

“No matter what the other candidates say here today, there’s no quick fix,” the Democratic former House speaker said at the opening of the first, and so far only, gubernatorial debate. “There are no miracle cures.”

The notion of a man who believes in nothing, save the electorate, sweeping to make bold and dramatic changes and rid the political system of its evils is a popular and enduring one. Many third-party and independent candidates have tried it. Most end up fizzling.

Johnson has already exceeded expectations with his strong fundraising and solid showing in the polls. If he can catch some rest, he could be the next governor of Oregon.