MONROE, Ore. — Democrats haven’t lost a governor’s race in Oregon in four decades. Two years ago, Joseph R. Biden Jr. won the state by 16 percentage points. The only Republican to win a statewide election since 2002 died before finishing his term.
And yet this year’s race for Oregon governor is now among the tightest in the country, illustrating both frustration with one of the nation’s most progressive state governments and the power of a single billionaire donor to shape an election to his whims. The Republican candidate, Christine Drazan, has a real path to victory, despite promoting anti-abortion views that would ordinarily be a political loser in a state that has become a refuge for people who can no longer get abortions in their home states.
The contest is so close in part because a quirky Democratic-turned-independent candidate running as a centrist has drawn a sizable bloc of support away from the Democratic nominee, Tina Kotek, leaving her struggling to stitch together a winning coalition. The Democrats’ predicament has now ensnared President Biden, who is visiting Portland this weekend to hold events for Ms. Kotek and the state party.
Republicans are salivating at the prospect of breaking up the Democratic lock on the West Coast — Alaska is the only state on the Pacific Ocean where the G.O.P. holds a statewide office — and relishing the news that a sitting president is required for a Democratic rescue mission.
“The only thing you can say about that is they are scared, they are desperate,” Ms. Drazan told a crowd of hunters at a campaign rally this week in the eastern foothills of Oregon’s Coast Range.
Ms. Drazan’s candidacy received another jolt of momentum in recent days from Phil Knight, the billionaire co-founder of the sports giant Nike, Oregon’s largest company. In the early months of the campaign, he sent $3.75 million to the coffers of the independent candidate, Betsy Johnson, a former helicopter pilot who spent two decades as a thorn in Democrats’ side in the Oregon State Legislature before finally leaving the party last year.
But as polls showed Ms. Johnson lagging well behind Ms. Kotek and Ms. Drazan, Mr. Knight, frustrated with what he described as a lurch too far to the left in the state’s government, switched his loyalty this month, sending $1 million to Ms. Drazan.
Mr. Knight, Oregon’s richest man, is now the largest single contributor to both Ms. Johnson and Ms. Drazan. His largess has helped turn the race into a tossup, forcing Democrats to divert money in a bid to retain the governor’s office.
Mr. Knight, who rarely speaks with reporters, said in an interview on Thursday that he would do whatever he could to stop Ms. Kotek from becoming governor, describing himself as “an anti-Tina person.” He said he had never spoken with Ms. Drazan.
“One of the political cartoons after our legislative session had a person snorting cocaine out of a mountain of white,” Mr. Knight said. “It said, ‘Which of these is illegal in Oregon?’ And the answer was the plastic straw.”
Ms. Kotek, a former State House speaker, is in trouble because of a cocktail of political maladies and a backlash against Gov. Kate Brown, who polls show is the country’s least popular governor. Next week, Ms. Kotek’s own conduct in Salem will be scrutinized by a legislative committee after one of her former caucus colleagues accused her of making threats to win support for legislation she wanted to pass.
Ms. Kotek’s opponents have focused on widespread homelessness and safety fears in Portland, which set a record for murders last year and could surpass that number this year. Ms. Kotek helped usher into law new restrictions on what Oregon’s cities could do to remove homeless people from their streets at the same time that a new law, enacted in a 2020 referendum, decriminalized small amounts of hard drugs like cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine.
Ms. Drazan, who won a 19-way Republican primary in May, is presenting herself in the mold of Larry Hogan and Glenn Youngkin, G.O.P. governors who won in Democratic-leaning states by campaigning as moderates.
But she has also highlighted her conservative credentials. They include an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association; her opposition to abortion; and her proposal to create “a permanent task force on election integrity” in Oregon, which was the first state to install a universal vote-by-mail system.
Last month, at a Drazan campaign rally in central Oregon, one of the featured speakers was B.J. Soper, a prominent activist in a far-right group established by Ammon Bundy, who led an armed takeover of an Oregon wildlife refuge in 2016. Ms. Drazan’s campaign said this past week that it did not organize the event and that she did not know who Mr. Soper is.
Oregon approved money early this year to support women who travel to the state for abortions, a push that gained new urgency as states enacted strict abortion bans after the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade. But Ms. Drazan characterized Oregon’s effort as “outside the mainstream.”
“If Democrats bring legislation to me that funds additional line-item issues, like ‘Let’s invite people in from other places to get abortions in Oregon with public funds,’ I will line-item veto that,” she said.
Voters have signaled that homelessness is one of the top issues in the race. While Ms. Drazan and Ms. Johnson, who has called Portland “the city of roaches,” have vowed to crack down on people living in unauthorized tent encampments, Ms. Kotek has promised a more conciliatory approach. Her television ads show her speaking with homeless people, and she has held campaign stops at shelters in Portland.
But Ms. Kotek has also expressed outrage at the situation and cast herself as more of an agent of change than other Democratic leaders, saying that Governor Brown and Mayor Ted Wheeler of Portland have failed to address the issue with the required urgency. She has vowed to pursue a state of emergency to help build more housing and streamline the process to put teams on the ground that can connect homeless people with services.
“We are not on the right track, but I don’t think we have to take a hard turn to the right to solve those problems,” she said.
This past week, as Ms. Kotek visited a Portland transitional housing center, dozens of people who needed food arrived to receive plates of rice, chicken, fruit salad and cookies adorned with an Oregon State University football logo. Outside, tents dotted the sidewalks in every direction. One man slept on a thin bed of newspapers, while another could be heard yelling down the street.
Ms. Kotek said the city’s trash, boarded-up windows and people acting out on the streets were all reasons that many residents felt unsafe. “We’ve got to take care of that,” she said.
Mayor Wheeler said he did not believe any of the candidates for governor had produced sufficiently specific policies on homelessness, and he said he would not endorse anyone until they did.
“Whoever gets elected governor in the state of Oregon is going to be the director of homeless strategies for the entire state come January,” Mr. Wheeler said. “And they better have their ducks in a row.”
He did not rule out backing Ms. Johnson or Ms. Drazan, who this week praised Mr. Wheeler for his efforts to clear homeless encampments along routes to schools and said she was ready to team up with the city.
With ballots set to be distributed next week, some voters also appear uncertain about how to proceed.
Guy Randles, 70, a Democrat from Portland, said he initially supported the candidacy of Nicholas Kristof, who left his position as an opinion columnist at The New York Times to run for governor in Oregon before being disqualified for failing to meet residency requirements. Mr. Kristof has since endorsed Ms. Kotek, but Mr. Randles moved his support to Ms. Johnson.
Now, with signs that Ms. Johnson might not have enough support to win, Mr. Randles is rethinking his choice. He might vote for Ms. Drazan, he said, because with a divided government, she would not have major power over issues like abortion rights.
“I think that change is needed and would be healthy,” Mr. Randles said. “The same old cast of characters, the same old coalition, I don’t think they’ve got the results.”
Mr. Knight, in the interview, said he had abandoned Ms. Johnson’s campaign because she could not “get enough undecided voters to make up the difference” with Ms. Kotek and Ms. Drazan.
Asked if serving as a financial benefactor for an anti-abortion politician ran counter to his company’s well-manicured image as a champion of social justice causes, he replied: “Nike has good leadership. They make choices, whatever they want, but I think I’m more conservative than Nike.” Mr. Knight is the chairman emeritus of Nike’s board but does not run the company day to day.
Ms. Johnson insisted that the contest remained “a three-way race” but allowed that her candidacy, which has drawn far more support from Democrats than it has from Republicans, had made Ms. Kotek vulnerable.
“Were I not here, it would be a two-way race and then Christine would lose,” Ms. Johnson said.
Ms. Kotek’s supporters are already explaining away a possible Republican victory as a consequence of Ms. Johnson’s candidacy and Mr. Knight’s money. An Do, the executive director of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Oregon, said that “conservative special interests are seizing this moment to try to outright buy our elections.” Doug Moore, the executive director of the Oregon League of Conservation Voters, said that if Ms. Drazan won, “it’s because of a fluke with a three-way race.”
But Representative Kurt Schrader, a moderate Democrat, said the state had marched substantially to the left. And along the way, he said, there has been growing unease.
“Portland, which used to be kinky and weird and a very liberal community, became a very dangerous community where people are no longer enjoying it,” he said.
This year, as he faced a primary challenge from a more liberal Democrat, Mr. Schrader won an endorsement from Mr. Biden but went on to lose the race.
Now, Mr. Biden and Mr. Schrader are supporting different candidates: Mr. Biden is campaigning for Ms. Kotek, while Mr. Schrader has endorsed Ms. Johnson.
“At the very least,” Mr. Schrader said, Ms. Johnson has made it clear that in Oregon, “there’s something terribly, terribly wrong.”
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