If you listen closely, in the distance you may notice the yawn of an awakening giant booming deep within Oregon’s ancient forests. From Cannon Beach, over the Cascades, with outstretched arms reaching across the continent, the rumbling is being noticed.
Stirring is the typically electorally sleepy state of Oregon rousing from the relative calm and, dare it be said, cordial way of its politics.
Oregon rarely raises eyebrows during the November sweepstakes. There are reasons for that: some cultural, some practical and some, purposeful.
But now on display is what Oregonians have always known; Oregon politics can be quirky and weird. “Portlandia” weird.
Oregon, like the rest of the nation, is in the throes of a political identity crisis. Its deeply and reliably blue past electoral outcomes obscure the duality of its political forces. Hell, even the state flag has two sides. On its front, a blue field bears the gold state seal ensconced by “The State of Oregon” on top and the year of its founding, “1859,” at its bottom. Its reverse reveals a beaver, the state’s nickname and official animal.
Like its varied topography of rugged Pacific coastline, towering forests, furtive Willamette Valley and mountain ranges, Oregon’s politics are diverse and unique.
For many, Oregon evokes images of the eponymous green and black dot-matrixed 1980s video game “The Oregon Trail” and Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein’s portrayals of various, somewhat exaggerated, Portland archetypes. In reality, it’s home to perhaps America’s broadest spectrum of political viewpoints — a zeitgeist where the proverbial political pendulum falls squarely in its dizzying center.
On the right: extremist forces who seized federal lands at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge five years before the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U. S. Capitol. On the left: protesters across the entire range of progressive causes who have kept Portland weird for decades, holding enormous influence in the state’s population center.
Now on national display, Oregon’s typically obscured political dissonance may yield unique insights into the current political mood of the state and nation at large.
Oregon, with its marquee race for governor and three competitive House seats, is drawing the attention and concern of Democrats throughout the nation. Even the men standing as sentinels at the political poles of the party, President Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), were activated to help blunt the potential purpling of the Democratic stalwart.
For all of its placid persona, Oregon frequently manages to keep its politics packed with firsts. Its gubernatorial contest features the nation’s first all-female three-way race. And, if victorious, former state House speaker and Democratic nominee Tina Kotek will become the first lesbian and second consecutive LGBTQ governor, once unimaginable.
But Republican Christine Drazen could also make history, becoming Oregon’s first Republican governor in decades, thanks largely to the assistance of former Democratic State Senator and independent-candidate-turned-potential-spoiler Betsy Johnson and millions in outside GOP spending.
Muddling Oregon with other political tossups throughout the nation misses more confounding questions facing Democrats in Oregon and beyond. While many would rather ascribe the razor’s edge election to Oregonians outrage at Portland’s chaotic protest culture, its housing and homelessness crisis, the perception of progressive politics run amok and inflation, Johnson’s candidacy and ragtag coalition of supporters are the real gamechangers in that contest.
Widespread problems in Portland, highlighted and underscored nationally (particularly by former President Trump, who used the city as a reference point to sow racial and social divisions during his unsuccessful reelection bid), are indeed formidable issues for candidates running throughout the state. They are serious matters that must be addressed by whomever voters choose as their executive. But accepting them as the principal motivators of voters for the 2022 ballot underscores exactly what Trump has done to American politics. It allows him to intrude into the narrative and hover over the race, turning it into another ring of the circus over which he reigns as ringmaster in chief.
Complicating things further is the real possibility of three of Oregon’s six congressional seats flipping from blue to red due to the decennial redistricting process, changing each district’s character and borders. In a staggering turn from previous delegations composed of just one Republican representing the majority of the state’s landmass and the thinnest scattering of its population, its delegation could split 50/50.
Retiring Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.), a leader of the Blue Dog Caucus of moderate House Democrats who lost a primary race to a far more progressive candidate, has since endorsed Johnson, leaving Democrats an altered and challenging district.
The race to replace retiring House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio is a donnybrook between Oregon’s labor commissioner, Val Hoyle, and the semi-celebrity, now perennial, GOP candidate Alek Skarlatos, an Army veteran who rose to fame after subduing a terror attack on a Paris train in 2015, parlaying his notoriety into a star-turn on “Dancing with the Stars” and, he hopes, a seat in Congress.
And there is a wide-open brawl for a newly created congressional district, formed as a result of Oregon gaining an additional seat in the House of Representatives due to its growing population.
All these races, while concerning for Democrats because they may ultimately contribute to a swing toward a Republican House majority, are unique more for their casts of characters than they are as harbingers of doom for the party.
But the question remains: What happens if Betsy Johnson’s insurgence into the governor’s race as an independent candidate bent on thwarting Kotek and Democrats’ chances of holding onto the governorship succeeds? A Republican governor of Oregon? A split congressional delegation? It’s not quite “Blazing Saddles,” but it’s definitely something. And it could be a wakeup call in advance of another impending key contest with the possibility of an independent candidate yielding similar results in the 2024 presidential contest.
Don’t sleep on Oregon this election season. It is awake and demands our attention.
Ray Zaccaro is a Democratic strategist and a former senior adviser and communications director to Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.). Follow him on Twitter @rayzaccaro.