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Democrats control all three branches of state government and have held the governor's office for 40 years.

PMG FILE PHOTO - The Oregon Capitol building in Salem, where Democrats control all three branches of government.Christine Drazan was a 10-year-old grade-schooler in Klamath County.

Tina Kotek had just turned 16 and was a budding high school track-and-field star in York County, Pennsylvania.

Betsy Johnson was 31, one of only 87 licensed women helicopter pilots in the United States, who two years earlier had flown over the Mt. St. Helens volcanic eruption for the U.S. Geological Survey.

It was November 1982. Oregon voters elected Gov. Vic Atiyeh to a second four-year term.

A Republican won the state's top job for another four years.

None has won a governor's election in the 40 years since.

Democrats have held the governorship through booms and busts, placid times and disasters, all while the population of the state swelled from 2.7 million to nearly 4.3 million today.

Less than three weeks remain before the Nov. 8 general election, and that four-decade streak is in doubt. National political forecasters are calling the three-way race a "toss-up."

Drazan, the Republican, is neck-and-neck with Kotek, the Democrat. Johnson, an unaffiliated candidate, trails in polling, but has a sizable following in the state.

With the fifth and last debate set for the the night of Wednesday, Oct. 19, in Portland, the campaigns have focused on three key dividing lines. These "wedge issues" separate one candidate from the other two.

Abortion and gun control are current political hot buttons driven by the recent Supreme Court decision and mass shootings.

But the third is the very political identity of Oregon itself. Has the 40-year Democratic dominance of nearly all levels of Oregon government been good for the state — or is it time for change?

In the third and last of our series, we look at the issue of Democrats' control of Oregon.

The candidates:

Kotek is a Democrat.

Johnson was a Democrat until last year and is now unaffiliated with any party.

Drazan is a Republican.

Public opinion:

Oregonians have consistently voted for Democrats for top political offices. But for two years running, Gov. Kate Brown has had the highest disapproval rating of any of the governors in 50 states in an annual poll by the data research firm, Morning Consult. The 2022 survey, released in April, showed 54% of Oregon residents surveyed disapproved of Brown's performance. Republicans have also shown stronger than usual performance in polls for some legislative and congressional races in Oregon.

Background:

Democrats have what in politics is called a "triad" — control over the executive, legislative and judicial branches of state government.

Democrats have won the governorship in every election since 1986. They currently hold three-fifths "supermajorities" is both the Oregon House and Oregon Senate which allows them to pass laws, including taxes, without Republican votes.

All seven justices of the Oregon Supreme Court were appointed by Democratic governors. Justices must be re-elected after six years in office.

With Tuesday's announcement that Chief Justice Martha Walters will resign effective Dec. 11, Brown is all but assured to leave office in January having named all the justices on the state's top court.

Voters have elected Democrats to all statewide offices — governor, treasurer, secretary of state, and attorney general. Labor Commissioner Val Hoyle, while officially elected in a non-partisan race, was a former Democratic state lawmaker currently running as a Democrat for the U.S. Congress.

Both U.S. senators, and four of five current members of the U.S. House, are Democrats. Due to the state's population growth over the past decade, Oregon received a sixth seat for the 2022 election. The redistricting plan approved by the legislature and Brown gives Democrats an advantage in five of the six seats.

The election:

After spending much of the 19th and 20th centuries as a reliably Republican bastion, voters in the 21st century have tilted increasingly toward marking their ballots for Democrats. While Republican fortunes have risen and fallen in the Legislature, a sign of the times is that Kotek, the Democratic nominee for governor, was the longest-serving House speaker when she stepped down to run to succeed Brown.

But recent public opinion polling has shown a majority of residents are unhappy with the direction of the state. The close three-way race for governor, as well as three competitive open seats for the U.S. House, have the possibility of upending the established status quo.

The candidates have argued they are the best change agent for Oregon. Kotek has said she can modify mistakes of current policy under Brown. Johnson says she will take the best from both sides and find a middle-of-the-road solution. Drazan says she's the only antidote to "one-party rule" in the state.

Democratic Party dominance in Oregon politics has acted as a surrogate for critics of the state's handling of a litany of issues — homelessness, affordable housing, the COVID-19 pandemic response, crime, increasing wildfire sizes, high gas prices, and faltering high school test scores.

"Kotek's main problem may be the sour mood of Oregon voters who are susceptible to arguments from both of her challengers that it's time for a change in Salem," wrote New York Magazine in a report on the Oregon race published Friday.

Both Drazan and Johnson have pointed to the state's dominant metropolis — Portland — as exhibit one of what's wrong with the state. It's a wedge to use on Kotek, who had represented a House district in the city for nearly a decade. It's part of an "urban-rural divide" cited by residents who don't live in the heavily Democratic Willamette Valley where the majority of state residents live in a swath from Portland to Eugene that has a majority of state voters living in a minority of Oregon counties.

Johnson, who as a state senator represented northwestern Oregon, derided Kotek as "Tent City Tina," a slap at Portland's large homeless population — a remark she later told Pamplin Media was more pithy than politic.

Much of the public displeasure has been vented toward Brown, who will leave office in January.

Johnson has called Kotek "More Kate Brown than Kate Brown."

Drazan has echoed the question to voters used by fellow Republican Ronald Reagan in his successful 1980 bid to oust President Jimmy Carter: "Are you better off now than you were four years ago?"

Do Oregon voters want reform or revolution? The candidates offer different answers.

Drazan says her election will end "one-party rule" in Oregon. She told the New York Times earlier this week that the last-minute visit by President Joe Biden to campaign for Kotek was a sign that Democrats are against the ropes.

"The only thing you can say about that is they are scared, they are desperate," Drazan said at what the Times called a "campaign rally of hunters" in rural Benton County.

Johnson said during a debate in Bend in September that she is the only candidate who is willing to give and take from both parties to find a consensus acceptable to most voters.

"The Democrats have an agenda, the Republicans have an agenda," Johnson said, but she has "an agenda unfettered by an ideology."

Kotek says that voters chose Democrats and that she is the best choice to fix mistakes made by Brown and earlier Democratic governors. To elect Johnson — or especially Drazan — would be an attack on majority rule in an attempt to create a "right-wing Oregon."

"Sen. Johnson and Rep. Drazan are really good about complaining about the issues, but very, very light on the details of how they would actually solve these problems," Kotek said.

Oregon Governors

Governor, term of office, and political affiliation, since 1959

Kate Brown: 2015 - 2023 Democratic

John Kitzhaber: 2011 - 2015 Democratic

Ted Kulongoski: 2003 - 2011 Democratic

John Kitzhaber: 1995 - 2003 Democratic

Barbara Roberts: 1991 - 1995 Democratic

Neil Goldschmidt: 1987 - 1991 Democratic

Victor Atiyeh: 1979 - 1987 Republican

Robert Straub: 1975 - 1979 Democratic

Tom McCall: 1967 - 1975 Republican

Mark Hatfield: 1959 - 1967 Republican

(Source: National Governors Association)

The Oregon Capital Bureau is a news partner of the Pamplin Media Group.


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