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Tina Kotek was elected governor of Oregon, thanks to these 3 factors

After an unexpectedly tight race, Oregon’s streak of Democratic governors continues.

- November 14, 2022

In Oregon, a close gubernatorial race received widespread attention in the 2022 midterm elections. It was a rarity for a state with the second-longest streak of Democratic governors — in fact, Oregon has not elected a Republican governor since 1982.

2022 was different.

Not only were the political conditions favorable to Republicans nationally, but polls conducted among Oregonians showed high levels of dissatisfaction with the way things were going in the state. In a Morning Consult poll released this year, voters rated Democrat Kate Brown as the least popular governor in the nation. These factors would lead to tough race to succeed her for any Democratic nominee.

Complicating the outlook for Democrats, Betsy Johnson, a centrist Democratic state senator, qualified to run as a political independent. Johnson’s name recognition and her background as an elected official — as well as considerable fundraising for a third-party candidate — made her a serious threat to pull support from Tina Kotek, the Democratic nominee.

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This scenario gave Republican gubernatorial nominee Christine Drazan the GOP’s best chance to win the Oregon governor’s office in a generation.

So how did Tina Kotek overcome these barriers and win?

Oregon’s Democratic base rallied

One reason why the party out of the White House tends to lose in midterm elections is uneven turnout. Namely, the president’s co-partisans are much more likely than their rivals to stay home on Election Day. That’s particularly true for co-partisans who disapprove of the president.

However, as was true in elections across the United States, Oregon Democrats were probably energized by the Dobbs decision that overturned Roe v. Wade. Oregon’s state constitution has codified abortion rights. But the Dobbs decision raised concerns that if reproductive rights were threatened, other rights could be next. Perceived threat, political science research shows, is often a strong mobilizer.

Kotek and other Democrats in the state highlighted threats to reproductive rights that Oregonians would face should Republicans succeed in the midterms. Recent research by political scientist Katherine Haenschen showed that even in 2018, when abortion was a less salient issue, these types of appeals helped bring in sympathetic voters.

While the numbers are still being counted, as of Nov. 12, it appears that about 178,000 more registered Democrats turned out in Oregon’s 2022 midterm elections than registered Republicans. This is slightly less than the 220,000 gap in 2018. However, most of Oregon’s uncounted ballots are coming from Democratic strongholds.

Nationwide, few Democrats took the race for granted

Given that Oregon has more registered Democrats than Republicans, the GOP would benefit from a low-interest election in which its base turns out and Democrats take the election for granted. However, national media coverage of the competitive race and close pre-election polling made it more difficult for an upset to occur in Oregon.

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Democrats felt a sense of urgency to retain the governor’s office — and prominent party leaders campaigned for the Democratic nominee. President Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) all visited Oregon to campaign with Kotek in the final weeks of the campaign. And former president Barack Obama appeared in a Kotek advertisement.

Research suggests that these types of appearances help generate higher levels of mobilization and support for the targeted candidate. Moreover, the support from top leaders signaled to Democrats who might be considering voting for Johnson, the independent candidate, that Kotek was the choice of both centrists and liberals. Endorsements by Obama, Biden, Warren and Sanders provided a powerful cue to Democrats to coalesce around Kotek.

Why didn’t the third party matter?

Johnson, a Democratic member of the Oregon Senate, campaigned as political independent — but wasn’t a typical third-party candidate, one voters might overlook. She had a strong track record and raised significant campaign funds, largely from Nike billionaire Phil Knight.

Johnson’s previous experience — and the level of funding she raised and spent on advertising — would typically correlate with greater name recognition and voter support. Political scientists Adam Chamberlain and Carl Klarner demonstrate that it is exactly these types of candidates who have the highest probability to steal votes from the party they left.

Moreover, initial polling showed Johnson with double-digit support in the gubernatorial race. When third-party candidates poll well, voters are less likely to see them as spoilers and more strongly consider voting for them. That’s why Johnson’s candidacy became a serious risk for Kotek’s bid for office.

In the end, though, Johnson came in a distant third, with less than 9 percent of the vote — probably because Democratic-leaning voters were concerned about a Republican victory in Oregon. In a polarized society where people strongly dislike the other side, voters become more strategic as Election Day nears. Research by Sean Goff and Daniel Lee, for instance, shows that while people may like the platforms of third-party candidates, they’re less likely to vote for them because these votes help the party they dislike more win the election.

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In recent weeks, Kotek and her allies played up this message by connecting Drazan to Republican extremists and suggesting that Johnson would play the spoiler. This messaging — that reliably blue Oregon might shift red — appeared to work. Despite of her credibility, Johnson’s decrease in support improved Kotek’s chances of winning the election.

Kotek’s election made history

A close election with three female candidates atop the ballot meant Oregon’s 2022 gubernatorial election was making history. And Kotek’s victory makes history in itself, as Oregonians elected their first openly lesbian governor.

Like many Democrats this Election Day, Kotek defied expectations, and she continued the long party streak of holding the governor’s office in Oregon. Kotek’s ability to increase Democratic turnout and avoid losing too many votes to Johnson proved key to her success. Moreover, her better than expected performance in this close election offers another signal that Democrats around the country outperformed expectations.

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This post has been updated.

Christopher Stout (@christophestout) is an associate professor in the Oregon State University School of Public Policy and author of “The Case for Identity Politics: Polarization, Demographic Change, and Racial Appeals” (University of Virginia Press, 2020).

Rafael Silva-Molina (@rafamolina1990) is a PhD candidate in the Oregon State School of Public Policy.