A strong performance by independent candidate Betsy Johnson helped siphon off enough support from Kotek to make victory for Republican Christine Drazan a distinct possibility, worrying Democrats in the weeks before Election Day.
Democrats had been hobbled by incumbent Kate Brown, the most unpopular governor in the country.
Brown’s inability to control a spiral of crime and homelessness in Portland, Oregon, and her commitment to pandemic-era lockdowns longer than many other governors put Democrats in a vulnerable position heading toward the final stretch of the midterm elections.
Kotek had worked to distance herself from Brown and liberal leaders in Portland by focusing on her plans to curb homelessness in the state.
But Drazan and Johnson made Kotek’s experience a liability in the race. Kotek has been the speaker of the Oregon House for nearly a decade, and her opponents argued she had already squandered the opportunities to fix the problems she was now pledging to tackle.
Dissatisfied voters in the overwhelmingly blue state gravitated toward Johnson, a former Democrat who ran for governor as an independent, amid their frustration. Polls leading up to Election Day suggested Johnson attracted more Democratic voters than Republicans.
The GOP candidate capitalized on the perfect storm created by negativity toward Democratic policies and the unique strength of her third-party opponent.
Drazan had promised to take on the state’s twin crime and homelessness crises more directly. She pushed to recriminalize offenses such as the open use of hard drugs and said she would not permit homeless people to remain on Portland’s streets.
That likely resonated with the 72% of Oregonians who said they had a negative view of Portland.
While Kotek focused significant attention on abortion access, Drazan managed to thread a difficult needle on the issue in a liberal state.
Drazan acknowledged her personal anti-abortion views and criticized the state’s permissive abortion law as an “outlier” but said she would not seek to roll back any abortion protections in Oregon.
Sensing trouble in the governor’s race, Democrats sent firepower to Oregon in the final days of the election.
President Joe Biden traveled to the state to campaign alongside Kotek, and former President Barack Obama recorded an ad for her in late October as polls showed her support trailing.