Image for The Three Women Running for Governor Are in a Horserace
Tina Kotek, Betsy Johnson and Christin Drazan appear to be in a horserace for governor this fall, but so far only Johnson is running campaign ads while Kotek and Drazan are busy trying to restock their depleted campaign war chests after the primary election.

Johnson is on TV While Kotek and Drazan are Fundraising and Shoring Up Support

Polling suggests the three-woman race for governor is a horse race with no one in a commanding lead following last month’s primary. However, Betsy Johnson, the non-affiliated candidate, is using her campaign cash advantage to run rings around her opponents who are back in the stable restocking their depleted campaign war chests.

Betsy Johnson’s appearance at a well-attend Portland TEDx event was a scheduling coup turned political nightmare after Johnson was peppered with hostile questions about her pro-gun legislative record. It turns out, Johnson is a serious gun collector, even owning a vintage machine gun.

Johnson used her $5 million primary election cash carryover to launch a TV blitz aimed at dissatisfied Democratic and Republican voters looking for something different. Her first ad ran the day after the May 17 primary. She now has a new ad that features voters who identify themselves as either Democrat or Republican and declare they are voting for Johnson.

The former state senator from Scappoose also made news by her unannounced appearance at a Portland TEDx event. No one has owned up to how she appeared on stage when her two opponents weren’t invited. Johnson may have wondered that herself after members of the audience peppered her with questions about her pro-gun legislative record. It was an awkward moment for Johnson who explained she represented a rural constituency in the legislature and was a serious gun collector, including owning an old machine gun.

Democrat Tina Kotek and Republican Christine Drazan turned back serious rivals in their respective primaries, at a cost of emerging with only $100,000 or so left in their bank accounts to start general election campaigns. Both are expected to receive substantial financial help from Democratic and Republican donors, but probably never enough to exceed what Johnson can raise and spend.

Kotek has turned for now to social media to gain exposure and rally her base. Drazan is no doubt busy trying to congeal the Oregon Republican base, especially the conservative wing that supported her primary rivals.

Kotek and Drazan may be helped – or – hurt by breaking issues, namely the pending Supreme Court decision this month expected to overturn Roe v. Wade and the rash of mass shootings that has spurred state and local reactions nationwide.

The prospect of overturning Roe v. Wade, which would trigger numerous state laws around the country to limit or outlaw abortions, could politically activate both pro-life and pro-choice advocates in Oregon. Kotek is pro-choice and Drazan is pro-life. Johnson is also pro-choice, which could be a sticking point for her outreach to moderate Republicans. Kotek will face the challenge of trying to prove she is more reliably pro-abortion than Johnson.

The aftermath of mass shootings opens a lane for Kotek to distinguish herself from Drazan and Johnson by supporting stricter gun restrictions than her opponents would likely support. However, if Kotek goes too far, she could alienate conservative, downstate Democrats who already wonder whether she is too liberal.

The issue most likely to stick around until November is leadership. There seems to be a widely held, bipartisan view that Governor Brown hasn’t been a strong leader during difficult times. Whether that’s true or not is irrelevant. If a majority of voters think it’s true, the candidates vying to replace Brown must demonstrate their leadership style and strength. Kotek, Johnson and Drazan have very distinct styles, but will have to demonstrate their strength to govern a more politically divided Oregon.

Kotek has the most defined leadership record after serving nearly 10 years as Oregon House Speaker. Supporters describe her as decisive and trustworthy. Critics say she runs over people who get in her way and backs out of deals she negotiates.

Both Johnson and Drazan have experience with Kotek’s leadership. Johnson became the 16th Senate vote for the Student Success Act funded by a new commercial activities tax, which she says is a vote she now regrets casting because the law lacked any accountability measures for how new revenue for schools would be spent. Secretary of State Shemia Fagan has stepped in to identify five “risk areas” that could jeopardize student learning. Fagan’s report is addressed to the Governor.

As the new House GOP leader, Drazan crossed swords with Kotek on a Democratic cap-and-trade bill that led a Republican walkout Drazan orchestrated. In the 2021 session, Drazan and Kotek cut a deal that gave Drazan a seat on the House Legislative Redistricting Committee. Kotek later reversed course and pushed through congressional and legislative redistricting maps favoring Democrats. Before the legislature adjourned, Drazan filed a censure motion against Kotek, which failed, but may have cemented Drazan’s GOP credentials.

Johnson’s ads emphasize she is an “equal opportunity pisser-offer” – and also someone who gets results. Johnson’s legislative reputation is defined by her critics as the environmental and gun control measures she opposed but that passed anyway because of large Democratic majorities in the Senate. Her ultimate electoral success may turn on how many people she has pissed off vote for her anyway.

The issue most likely to stick around until November is leadership. There seems to be a widely held, bipartisan view that Governor Brown hasn’t been a strong leader during difficult times.

Johnson’s campaign team has spurned conventional wisdom by spending freely on campaign ads months before voters start paying attention to an election held in the fall. Their assumption is Johnson will benefit by early exposure that will ensure she gets the signatures required to qualify for the November ballot and cement her political brand as someone who bring both parties together in the middle. The strategy also recognizes Johnson will eventually be the target of sharp negative advertising, so her advisers hope for an early inoculation from that.

Voters invariably are influenced by how candidates speak. Johnson, who frequently laces what she says with profanity, may come across as the most down-to-earth candidate of the three. Kotek and Drazan are certainly no wilting flowers. Kotek sounds every bit the confident progressive Democrat. Drazan, who made a point in her primary of noting she is a mom, projects a more moderate political persona expressing disgust with inaction on homeless camps and surging crime rates.

Kotek’s biggest problem will be to shake the image that she would be Kate Brown 2.0 as governor. Drazan needs to disabuse doubters that she has the toughness to deal with the state’s problems working with what’s likely to remain a firmly Democratic legislature.

In the minds of most voters, the governor’s race takes a backseat right now to concerns over inflation, homelessness and crime. Most voters won’t pay much attention to what candidates do or say until football season is underway. Johnson can’t afford to wait that long. Kotek and Drazan may not be able to wait that long, either.