AMAC Exclusive – By Daniel Berman
The last time Oregon elected a Republican governor, Ronald Reagan was still in his first term as President. Dominated by Portland’s Multnomah County, Oregon today seems a solid part of the “Left Coast.” Yet a revolt seems to be stirring among Oregon’s voters – if Republicans can take advantage of it and set the stage for a return to power in Salem after 40 years in the wilderness.
Democrats have won every gubernatorial election in Oregon since 1982, and as of 2020 they hold every statewide office. They control large majorities in both houses of the state legislature, holding 18 of 30 seats in the Senate and a 37-23 majority in the House.
Incumbent Democrat Governor Kate Brown consistently rates as the least popular chief executive in the country, and due to term limits is unable to seek re-election this fall. In her place, Democrats have chosen Tina Kotek, a self-avowed progressive and former speaker of the Oregon House of Representatives. Republicans, meanwhile, have nominated Christine Drazan, the former GOP minority leader in the state House. Betsy Johnson, a former Democratic member of the state Senate, formally left the party this spring and is running as an Independent in a strong third-party bid – polls currently have her just behind Drazen and Kotek, who are neck-and-neck in most surveys.
That few non-Oregon residents can name the state’s capital, Salem, instead defaulting to its largest city, Portland, both illustrates why Republicans have struggled to win in Oregon for decades and why Democratic hegemony may now be under threat. There are few states as dominated by a single city as Oregon has been politically. Boston has rarely wielded statewide power in Massachusetts, voting Republican when the Federalists dominated state politics and Democratic when Whigs and Republicans ruled. Even under Democratic hegemony, it is suburban politicians who rule. New York City has had to contend with the rest of the state, losing more often than not. San Francisco’s Bay Area is balanced by Los Angeles, and both by their suburbs. Minneapolis and St Paul, and Milwaukee and Madison, cannot produce majorities on their own for Democrats in Minnesota and Wisconsin, nor can Atlanta in Georgia.
Portland, however, can and does deliver statewide elections, especially at the Presidential level. While there are centers of Democratic strength around Eugene, college towns and the state capital, the rest of the state is largely red, and the decisive influence of Portland is obvious.
|Multnomah Margin||Multnomah Raw Votes||Washington County Margin||Washington Raw Voters||Total D Portland Margin in Votes||Statewide Margin in votes||Statewide Margin Outside Multnomah and Washington|
|2000||63.52%-28.2% Gore||D+104,764||48.75%-46.29% Gore||D+4,571||D+109,335||D+6,765||R+102,570|
|2004||71.57%-27.14% Kerry||D+161,146||52.37%-46.36% Kerry||D+13,917||D+175,063||D+76,335||R+98,728|
|2008||76.69%-20.61% Obama||D+204,525||59.82% -37.69% Obama||D+52,359||D+256,884||D+298,816||D+41,932|
|2012||75.37% -20.65% Obama||D+199,585||57.08%-39.65% Obama||D+41,317||D+240,902||D+216,313||R+24,589|
|2016||73.30%-17.03% Clinton||D+224,607||56.92%-30.90% Clinton||D+70,054||D+294,661||D+219,703||R+74,958|
|2020||79.21% -17.91% Biden||D+284,254||65.54% – 30.93% Biden||D+110,967||D+395,221||D+381,935||R+13,286|
The growth of Portland can be witnessed in two ways. First, the growth in the raw number of votes being cast both in the core parts of the city in Multnomah County, and secondly, the growth of Portland into previously competitive Washington County. Bush managed 47% of the vote in Washington County in both 2000 and 2004. By 2020, Donald Trump won less than 31%. At the same time, the raw margin by which Democrats won the two counties increased by nearly 400%, going from less than 110,000 in 2000 to almost 400,000 in 2020. Oregon’s shift from a toss-up state in the 2000 election, to a safely Democratic state in 2016 and 2020 is almost entirely a result of the growth of Portland.
This is not to say that the rest of the state has been static. The margins by which Bush won the rest of Oregon, around 100,000 votes in both 2000 and 2004 are not dramatically off the 75,000 by which Donald Trump won it in 2016. But whereas a 100,000-vote victory in the rest of Oregon got Bush within 7,000 votes of carrying the state in 2000 (albeit with a strong third party performance), in 2016 a 75,000 vote margin in the rest of Oregon still saw Donald Trump losing by 220,000 votes.
Portland’s growth has not only affected the outcome of statewide elections. It has also seen a shift in the balance of power within the Democratic Party. In states dominated by a major city, at least ones where Democrats are successful, the party tends to try and maintain a balance between the urban voters who provide their most reliable electorate, and the Democratic voters elsewhere who provide the margin of victory statewide. This is usually done by giving those regions a preponderance of influence in the choice of candidates and legislative leaders. Hence for years, Democrats favored politicians from the mill towns of central Maine or with ties to the timber unions of northern Maine over those from cosmopolitan southern Maine for legislative leadership roles. In New York, AOC might headline galas, but the legislative leadership tended to be dominated by Upstate pols. In Virginia, this meant picking candidates from Hampton Roads and Richmond rather than Northern Virginia, while in Maryland it meant ignoring Baltimore and in Michigan, Detroit. When this balance has collapsed, as it increasingly has in Maine, or as it did in Virginia in 2021 when Democrats selected all Northern Virginians for the statewide ticket, the result has been defeat. One of the major reasons Democrats have struggled to lock-in their gains in Atlanta in Georgia has been the perception that their candidates, especially Stacey Abrams, only represent Atlanta, and not all of Georgia.
In the case of Oregon, this balance has been undermined by the insistence of Portland-based politicians to demand a share in Democratic politics commensurate with their influence. Kate Brown, the present governor, was a Portland legislator. The first openly bisexual woman to serve as a governor, she succeeded by accident. The incumbent John Kitzhaber was forced to resign, and Brown as Secretary of State succeeded, as the state lacks a Lt. Governor. Her relative weakness was made clear in 2018. Despite a Democratic wave year nationally, she won by only 50.1% to 43.7%, or a margin of 120,000 votes. Ominously for Democrats outside of Portland, she carried Multnomah County by just 196,000 votes, and lost the state outside of Multnomah and Washington counties by 136,000 votes.
If Brown’s accession was by accident, the next two stages in Portland’s accession within Democratic politics was by design. Oregon gained an additional Congressional seat, and Democrats, who already held four out of five seats, decided to draw a map that would give them five of six. The method was to spread Portland’s votes into as many districts as possible.
The first victim was not a Republican but a Democrat, Congressman Kurt Schrader, a moderate who had represented Oregon’s Pacific Coastline and the state capitol of Salem since 2009. In 2021, Democrats led by Speaker Tina Kotek, drew Schrader’s seat into the Portland area as part of their gerrymander. In 2022, Schrader lost his primary to Jamie Mcleod-Skinner, a former local city council member in California who was endorsed by Elizabeth Warren. Schrader, who ultimately voted to impeach Donald Trump, had referred to the President’s first impeachment as a “lynching,” and despite endorsements by Pelosi and Joe Biden, that was enough to defeat him. Mcleod-Skinner, who has never won office in Oregon, now faces a tough race in November against Republican Lori Chavez-DeRemer, who even Democratic internal polls have narrowly ahead 42%-41%.
Kotek, meanwhile, has gone on to become the Democratic nominee for governor. There is no ambiguity about her politics or appeal: Kotek, who is lesbian, represents a seat in northwest Portland, where her Republican opponent managed 20% in her first race back in 2006, and the party has not bothered to challenge her since. She was endorsed by Elizabeth Warren.
Kotek faces not just Republican Christine Drazen, but also Betsy Johnson, who served as a Democratic State Senator for 16 years from 2005 to 2021. A social moderate, she is pro-choice but opposes allowing transgender individuals to participate in women’s sports. Johnson has earned some bipartisan support, receiving endorsements from former Republican Senator Gordon Smith and former Democratic Governor Ted Kulgonski. Most dramatically, Congressman Kurt Schrader endorsed her last week.
It is difficult to poll a three-way race. Third party candidates often poll well before fading, unless they manage to knock off one of the major party candidates. What should concern Kotek and Democrats is that no poll has had Kotek above 34% of the vote. Combined with Kate Brown’s toxic numbers and the perception that Kotek is Kate Brown 2.0, it seems that many voters are trying to figure out which of Johnson or Drazen is most likely to end the rule of the Portland mafia.
Much like Oregon politics in general, the gubernatorial contest has become a conflict between Portland and the rest of the state. That Kulgonski and Schrader, would endorse Johnson over Kotek is evidence enough that Democrats in the rest of the state do not want to be ruled by Portland, or for Portland to be a model for the state. It is not just that Portland has become a national symbol of government which ignores social breakdown and the basic duties of governing, but that Kate Brown’s tenure is perceived as the embodiment of that trend.
Johnson’s own trajectory indicates that if Drazen wins, she may find unlikely allies in the legislature. Republicans tied the State House as recently as 2016, and with an unpopular statewide candidate and much of the party in revolt, it is seen as plausible Democrats could lose actual or effective control.
In any event, Oregon will be a state to watch this November, as a lesson for all parties in the dangers of allowing one city and one political group to dominate an entire state.
Daniel Berman is a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics. He also writes as Daniel Roman.
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