Oregon is not usually center stage in US politics. When people think of the state, they might recall its depiction in the TV series Portlandia: liberal, progressive, and a little bit hipster. This is far from reality. While Oregon has been a Democratic stronghold for the past 40 years, recent events have undermined the party’s popularity in the state. The changing sentiments of voters can be seen in the recent gubernatorial race. While Democrat Tina Kotek did end up winning the governorship, the race was much closer than expected.
The race pitted Tina Kotek, the Democratic Speaker of the State House, against Christine Drazan, a former Republican State Representative. Additionally, former Democrat Betsy Johnson left the party to run as an independent. Her pro-bipartisanship, pro-choice and pro-gun messaging attracted many swing voters.
As one of the largest states in the nation, Oregon is home to a diversity of political views—from strong Democratic centers in Portland and along the I-5 corridor to deep Republican strongholds in Eastern Oregon’s ranch societies. In 2020, this diversity created political tension on everything from protests in Portland, to masks (which were required to be worn indoors and outdoors when physical distancing was not possible) and vaccines (several businesses mandated that employees get the vaccine). The events of 2020 made many Oregonians unhappy with their current government, contributing to a growing dislike for Democrats. In the midst of a racial reckoning after the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmed Arbury, protests and demonstrations took place all over the country in support of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. Portland, Oregon was an epicenter of these protests. For more than a hundred days, protestors gathered at night to demonstrate against police violence and advocate for the adoption of more community-focused police practices in Portland. Another demand of the protesters was the resignation of Democratic Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, who was accused of sending the Portland Police to BLM protests.
While 2020 BLM protests across the county were mostly peaceful, Portland was an exception. Riots caused property damage, injury, and at least one death. Portland is a strong democratic center, but when left-wing groups started to become violent in 2020, it became hard not to associate their actions with the broader Democratic Party. This sense was amplified by Republicans both in the state and nationally. After the Portland Police proved unable to handle the unrest, Governor Kate Brown refused to send in the National Guard. Additionally, a press release from the DOJ in September of 2020 specifically states that Mayor Ted Wheeler rejected the White House’s offer to bring in federal law enforcement. While many Portlanders might have felt solidarity with the BLM movement, when violence and vandalism came to their doors, opinions changed. In an interview with The Washington Post, Jake Weigler, a Portland Democratic strategist, said that riots “killed off a number of Democratic voters that would normally vote for the Democrat automatically in the governor’s race.” Republicans took full advantage of this throughout the campaign. For example, at one point during her campaign, Christine Drazan said of Tina Kotek: “She did not support the police even when rioters were attacking a police station.”
It is important to note that political violence in Portland is not limited to left-wing groups. Right-wing groups have caused violence for years, sometimes when they clash with left-wing groups. However, when the left-wing started to become more violent in 2020, Republicans had a clear movement to blame. Unfortunately for Democrats, this movement was the Black Lives Matter movement. With Democrats across the country echoing BLM’s views (such as its calls for decreased police funding and presence), people in Oregon associated the violence they were seeing within the state to the general Democratic Party. A poll conducted in the Portland area by the Oregonian in 2021 hinted at these trends. When asked if downtown Portland is safe at night, 53 percent said no. Additionally, 55 percent strongly disapproved of the mayor and city council’s management of the protests and 50 percent supported increased police presence. This corresponds with 63 percent of respondents believing Portland was less safe than 12 months before the protests with 42 percent saying it was much less safe.
This election, Republicans were also able to brand Oregon Democrats as soft on crime. With this strategy, Republicans were able to touch on both homelessness and drug decriminalization. Homelessness has become an ever-growing problem in Oregon—particularly in the Portland area. Since 2019, there has been a 50 percent increase in the number of people living without shelter in Portland. This has led to many homeless encampments developing around residential neighborhoods. Oftentimes, people in the camps suffer from drug addiction and, as a result, crime and violence rates increase in nearby areas. Unsurprisingly, people living in these neighborhoods have felt growing frustration with the city’s inaction. The same Oregonian poll found that 54 percent of people strongly disapprove of the way Mayor Wheeler and the city council have dealt with the homelessness crisis.
Republicans were able to use this sentiment to criticize Portland and the state’s Democratic leadership for doing little to prevent the growth of these camps and keep residential communities safe. These messages were spurred by Measure 110, a 2020 ballot measure that decriminalized the possession of small quantities of cocaine, heroin, LSD, meth, and several other drugs. When asked if Measure 110 should be repealed, Drazan said yes and stated, “It has made our addiction crisis worse, not better.” Because this measure was supported by many Democratic politicians within the state, Republicans have effectively linked violence and homeless camps with drug decriminalization to paint Democrats as soft on crime.
This cycle, Republicans waged an effective soft-on-crime media strategy against Oregon Democrats. Lingering effects of political violence, an addiction crisis, and rising homelessness have influenced Oregon voters. Democrat Tina Kotek ended up winning with 47 percent of the vote, securing a 3.4 percent margin of victory over Drazan. This narrow margin is telling, especially given that President Biden carried Oregon by 16 points in 2020 and current governor Kate Brown won her 2018 re-election by more than six points. Democrats are becoming less popular in Oregon, and if they continue to be associated with violence, homelessness, and addiction among voters, the once-Democratic stronghold could be on the table for Republicans in 2024.