Politics

Oregon GOP sees hope in the 2022 election results, despite lack of a ‘red wave’

By Lauren Dake (OPB)
Nov. 28, 2022 1 p.m.
Despite ample voter frustration, Republican Christine Drazan lost to Democrat Tina Kotek in the race for governor.

Despite ample voter frustration, Republican Christine Drazan lost to Democrat Tina Kotek in the race for governor.

Bradley W. Parks / OPB

When Christine Drazan, the Republican candidate for Oregon governor, conceded the race earlier this month, she pleaded with her supporters: “Do not lose hope.”

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This was supposed to be the year the GOP broke its 40-year losing streak and won Oregon’s highest office. Everything seemed lined up in Republicans’ favor: Oregonians were angry at the status quo, Republicans expected to do well nationally, and a well-funded unaffiliated candidate, Betsy Johnson, caused even Democrats to momentarily question their political dominance.

Yet Oregon voters once again elected a Democrat as governor — the same thing they’ve done every campaign since 1982. Democrats also still hold the majority in both legislative chambers.

Across the nation, Republicans are lamenting the red wave that wasn’t. But Republicans are doing exactly what Drazan prescribed. Despite losing the one statewide seat up for grabs, Republicans haven’t lost hope. In fact, the state’s leading Republicans say they feel relatively good about the election results.

For many, this campaign cycle felt like a turning point. Republicans had viable, well funded candidates. They were competitive in races that were normally dominated by Democrats. Their candidate at the top of the ticket, Drazan, managed to unite the more conservative base and still attract the moderate part of the party. This election cycle, several politicians and strategists said, Oregon Republicans were players.

To be a Republican in Oregon, it turns out, you have to be a bit of an optimist.

“Part of the reason we feel good about the election is that in every blue state targeted by both the Democrats and the Republicans, there is only one state that picked up seats (in the state Legislature) and that’s Oregon,” said Senate Republican Leader Tim Knopp.

Sun glints off the pioneer atop the Oregon Capitol building in Salem, Ore., Saturday, June 29, 2019. Republican senators returned to the Capitol after a nine-day walkout in order to finish Senate business before the June 30 deadline.

Democrats will maintain control of both legislative chambers next year, but their margin isn't as wide.

Bradley W. Parks / OPB

In conversation after conversation with some of the state’s leading Republicans, that’s the narrative you hear: Despite Drazan’s defeat and the demographic realities of Oregon politics, their faith in their party and the electorate remains intact.

Republican Lori Chavez-DeRemer won the open U.S. House seat in Oregon’s 5th Congressional District, flipping the seat and helping the Republicans take control of the U.S. House. The contest drew millions in out-of-state money, and Chavez-DeRemer’s victory makes her one of two Latina congresswomen from Oregon elected this cycle. For a party that has struggled to elect more women and people of color, it was energizing to have Drazan at the top of the ticket and a woman of color win a seat in Congress.

“I think the Republican Party in Oregon has been looked at really as nonexistent, as not participating, maybe in the last 10 years,” said Chavez-DeRemer, former mayor of Happy Valley. “But that changed this year.”

Republicans also managed to strip away Democrats’ supermajority in the state Legislature. That means Democrats, though still in charge of both legislative chambers, will need Republican votes to raise taxes in next year’s legislative session. And for Republican leaders, that feels like a big win. GOP candidates were also competitive in a lot of legislative seats that Democrats usually dominate.

“We not only put up good candidates, we got funding, and they put up good races,” said Rep. Daniel Bonham, The Dalles, who was elected to the state Senate this cycle.

All politics are local?

There were a few unknowns leading up to the 2022 midterm election, primarily how big of a role the U.S. Supreme Court decision to overturn the right to access an abortion would play in local elections.

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November marked the first general election in Oregon since the U.S. Supreme Court ended the right to access an abortion, and going into the campaign season, it was unclear how voters would rank abortion rights when compared to all the other problems facing the state.

“Abortion is clearly part of the story,” said John Horvick, a pollster with DHM Research. “If the Dobbs decision doesn’t happen, is Christine Drazan the governor at that point? We’ll never know for sure, but I have to think Democrats felt a need to continue to vote Democrat given that decision and it was helpful for Tina Kotek.”

Oregon Democrats put abortion access at the heart of their campaigns.

Oregon Democrats put abortion access at the heart of their campaigns.

Courtesy of James Winkelman

Many Republicans in Oregon believe, in a state where most Oregonians feel people should have a right to access reproductive health care, the court decision hurt their chances at capturing the top of the ticket.

In campaign messages from Democrats and their supporters, the issue of abortion was also intentionally connected into the national narrative surrounding former U.S. President Donald Trump and the Jan. 6th insurrection that he inspired.

One advertisement from Kotek’s campaign put it bluntly: “If Christine Drazan supports MAGA Republicans, can we trust her to protect our democracy?”

In another sign of how vulnerable Democrats felt at the end of the race, Kotek also increasingly attacked her former ally and fellow Democrat, current Gov. Kate Brown.

“Republicans tried to make this a referendum on Kate Brown. They were hyper focused on Oregon issues and that was probably the right play,” Horvick said. “But (Drazan) couldn’t separate herself from the sentiments about the larger Republican Party and Jan. 6th and the Republican-dominated Supreme Court.”

Drazan agreed. Her campaign focused largely on local issues plaguing the state, from the rise in crime, to the lack of mental health care and the homeless crisis. She talked about improving the state’s schools and helping businesses hurt during mandated COVID-19 closures. As the candidate with the least legislative experience of the three, she attacked the status quo and promised to be the candidate of change.

“It started off as historic,” she said of the race for governor. “Three women, three different personalities, different perspectives, all well funded. By the end of the race, it was ‘MAGA Republican, militia, Jan. 6 and choice’ … It wasn’t about Oregonians anymore.”

Drazan was endorsed by Oregon Right to Life and said during the campaign that Oregon’s laws around abortion access are extreme, but she also said if she were elected Oregonians would continue to have access to abortions. The right to access abortion is codified into Oregon state law.

In the end, Kotek captured 46.9% of the vote to Drazan’s 43.5%. Johnson captured less than 9% of the vote.

Now, the question becomes, if Republicans couldn’t nab the top of the ticket or a statewide seat in this climate, when can they?

Part of the equation will, of course, continue to be what is happening at the national level.

But Drazan and others pushed back on the idea that the Oregon GOP needs to rethink its strategy or rebuild.

Instead, they see this election cycle as a foundational one. For years, the GOP in Oregon has failed to build a bench. This could be a turning point, many said. Drazan, for her part, said she plans to continue to stay engaged and help the party. Several Republicans from previous election cycles, Chris Dudley or Bud Pierce, of Salem, seemed to stop participating in party politics.

“I know it feels like my particular race warrants a piece about (GOP) rebuilding, but I would say the infrastructure we built for this campaign has the ability to have longevity … I don’t view it as rebuilding,” Drazan said. “I view it as continuing to engage, continuing to participate, not losing hope.”

Her future role in the party is unclear.

“I still just am a sucker for Oregon,” she said “I believe it is important to serve people and … I always have.”

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