The race to become Oregon’s next governor is headed into its home stretch—there’s just under 50 days now until Election Day—which means it’s time for the race to take to the airwaves.
For most people, most of the time, that means an unending spate of TV ads, whether it's Republican Christine Drazan pitching herself as an alternative to years of Democratic control in Oregon, or Democrat-turned-Independent Betsy Johnson trying to broaden her base as “the only candidate who will crack down on crime AND protect abortion rights”, or Democrat Tina Kotek’s recent ad reminding voters that she’s got the endorsement of Planned Parenthood’s PAC and a record of support for abortion justice legislation.
Tonight, for the first time, it will also mean a televised debate. (The candidates did meet last month for a debate sponsored by the Oregon Newspaper Publishers' Association which was streamed on the websites of newspapers across the state, but that conversation was not broadcast in full in prime time.)
The three candidates will meet at Oregon State University’s campus in Bend, for a 6 pm debate that's also hosted by the City Club of Bend and KTVZ. In a week’s time, they’ll regroup for another debate, this one hosted by KATU in Portland.
Here’s what to watch for if you’re tuning in tonight:
1. Keep an eye on who puts who on the spot.
Public polling has shown that this race is a tight one, an unusual occurrence for reliably blue Oregon, and one that many political observers are chalking up to Johnson’s presence in the race. It’s very difficult (though not impossible) for a third-party candidate to win a general election; but there’s no doubt that Johnson is going after both disaffected Democrats and red-meat Republicans. (Case in point: She appeared this week on Fox News’ America Reports with John Roberts on which she called Kotek “Tent City Tina” and dismissed her as "so woke she sided with the rioters over the police.")
So, if you’re Kotek and Drazan, do you ignore Johnson, and focus exclusively on each other? Or try to poke holes in her attempts to steal away voters who might otherwise side with you? We’ll find out more tonight and again next week. Thus far, Drazan has kept her fire trained mostly on Kotek, while Kotek has tried to paint both of her opponents as too extreme for the state.
2. Watch for hot-button issues to dominate.
National polls suggest that bread-and-butter topics like the economy are top of mind for voters, but it’s issues like abortion rights and gun control that tend to motivate crucial slices of the electorate. National Democrats are running hard on abortion rights and Kotek’s no exception. She’s also got a good opportunity to go after both Johnson and Drazan on gun control, given that a majority of the Oregon electorate favors putting stricter gun regulations in place. Drazan and Johnson, on the other hand, are likely to go hard on crime and the spread of houseless encampments in Portland, particularly in a bid for votes in populous Washington and Clackamas Counties.
3. And after the debate, follow the money.
Both Drazan and Kotek have gotten big ticket donations of late from their respective governor’s associations, particularly as the race has tightened up, and presented a rare pick-up opportunity in a blue state for the GOP. Johnson had been pulling in huge donations from Nike’s Phil Knight and other Oregon titans of industry, but she hasn’t reported any new donations to the Oregon Secretary of State’s Office since late August. Kotek’s fund-raising is much more up-to-date; she most recently reported a $250,000 donation from Stand for Children’s Oregon PAC and $150,000 from the Nurses’ United Political Action Committee. Drazan’s donations are also up to date, but nothing has topped the $1 million she got from the Republican Governor’s Association two weeks ago. Depending on tonight’s debate performances, more donors could be inspired to open their checkbooks in the days ahead.