In Normally Sleepy August, the Oregon Governor's Race Heats Up

All three candidates are out with TV ads. We break them down.

By Julia Silverman August 3, 2022

The three candidates in the Oregon governor's race, Republican Christine Drazan, Democrat Tina Kotek and Independent Betsy Johnson.

Traditionally, political campaigns lie low for the month of August, raising money to stockpile for the fall.  

After all, right now lots of voters are on vacation and simply not paying attention to the press of politics. 

But in this year’s contentious, three-way race to be Oregon’s next governor, the leading candidates—Democrat Tina Kotek, independent Betsy Johnson and Republican Christine Drazan— are already up with TV commercials and have notched their first debate. The quick start is indicative of the high stakes: the unpredictable race looks to be one of the most competitive in years. 

One marker of the seriousness of this early-stage general election campaign: the fundraising pace. The Republican Governor’s Association gave Drazan another $250,000 at the end of July, on top of the $300,000 the group had already poured into her campaign, a signal that national money sees an opening in Oregon for an office long dominated by Democrats. (Not to be outdone, Kotek's campaign this week reported receiving a whopping $800,000 from the Democratic Governors' Association.)

Public polling so far has been piecemeal, and offers little insight into the race’s fluid dynamics, and its central question: Will Johnson siphon off more voters from Kotek or Drazan—or even enough from both of them to win outright? (There’s a less than 1 percent chance of a Johnson win, according to the political prognostication site Five Thirty Eight.) 

The next big marker in the race comes August 16, which is when the Johnson campaign needs to submit roughly 25,000 signatures to the Oregon Secretary of State’s office in order to appear on the ballot as a candidate unaffiliated with either major political party. 

In the meantime, the three candidates are trying to define themselves in the eyes of voters, including the state’s ever-growing cadre of nonaffiliated voters who weren’t able to weigh in on partisan primaries. Here’s a look at the first television produced by each campaign: 

Tina Kotek 

Kotek’s first ad of the primary cycle is a head-on response to one of the narratives that her opponents have been pushing: that she’s been disengaged from the entrenched and proliferating tent camps that have spread across Portland, where she lives. Her ad starts with a close-up of Kotek in a food pantry, and a reminder that she got her start years ago working for the Oregon Food Bank, establishing her in-the-trenches cred. She still volunteers at a food pantry through her church, she tells viewers—a call-out to more religious voters to consider her as a person of faith. In the rest of the ad, Kotek talks specifics, calling for more mental health addiction treatment and more outreach workers, “tent by tent” and ending with a line that neatly bridges both compassion and compassion fatigue: “So they are safe, so we are all safe.” 

Betsy Johnson 

Somewhat unusually for a lead-off campaign ad, Johnson’s current spot doesn’t feature her own narration, or much in the way of her background. Instead, she handed the reigns over to Alan Evans, a charismatic former addict who went on to found a series of recovery centers and shelters in coastal towns, many in Johnson’s former district. Evans is now at the helm of the Bybee Lakes Hope Center, a high-barrier shelter housed in the never used Wapato Jail that recently expanded the number of shelter beds it offers. Johnson, he says in the ad, was a steadfast supporter of the center even when other government officials deemed it too far from other services and inhumane to convert a former jail. The ending seeks to strike a similar note to Kotek’s: “When you lead with compassion and accountability,” Evans says, “We can save lives and clean up our streets.” 

Christine Drazan 

Drazan’s ad hews much closer to a more traditional biographical introduction than that of her opponents, at least in the beginning. She opens with her Klamath Falls roots—think Little League, porch swings, tractors and American flags (and a subtle shout-out to ranchers and farmers there who’ve fought for years to get more irrigation water released instead of held back for fish habitat.) But 15 seconds in, Drazan pivots to go on the offensive, the only one of the three candidates to mention her opponents. Much like Democrats might try to connect every GOP candidate back to Donald Trump, Drazan tries to tie Kotek and Johnson to incumbent Gov. Kate Brown, whose favorability ratings are among the country’s lowest. Democrats, she’s saying, have had “decades” in power in Salem, and yet “our streets are a mess,” with “a homeless crisis that is devastating all of Oregon.” (That’s a nod to the traditional, non-Multnomah County GOP voter who isn’t a fan of so-called Portland creep.) Drazan also ventures beyond homeless issues, the only one of the candidates to do so, to ding Democrats for passing the Student Success Act, which generates about $1 billion a year for schools via a corporate activity tax, which she says just gets passed on to consumers. 

Filed under
Show Comments