Republican Christine Drazan’s rise in the Oregon governor’s race

Oregon is a reliably blue state that hasn’t elected a Republican governor since 1982. But because of a split field — and frustration with the incumbent governor — this cycle, Republicans might pull out a victory.

On the surface, the Oregon governor’s race seems like a cookie cutter Republican midterm strategy. Like other GOP candidates across the country, Republican Christine Drazan has attacked her opponent, Democrat Tina Kotek, on the economy and crime, tying her to the performance of incumbent Gov. Kate Brown, who is polling poorly.

But this cycle isn’t just about backlash to the ruling party in Oregon or fears about crime and the economy. The unusual nature of the race — which has seen unaffiliated candidate Betsy Johnson attract about 14 percent in the polls — is also the culmination of a years-long campaign by a small number of special interests seeking to control the state.

The basis for that campaign is the state’s partisan divide over climate action. For years, the state has battled a conservative minority that has successfully stopped cap-and-trade and conservation policies. Oregon has become a hotbed for alt-right extremists who have set the stage for the election, including a pro-logging grassroots group, Timber Unity, whose leaders have been linked to alt-right militias.

Perhaps most importantly, the state’s richest man, Nike co-founder Phil Knight, could tip the scales against Drazan. Despite framing himself (and the company) as a climate champion, he has sent millions to Johnson and Drazan.

Timber Unity’s influence and Knight’s donations could be just what it takes to put a Republican in office. And if Drazan wins, Oregon would become the first state in the West to reverse course on its climate goals.

“Whoever sits in the governor’s office is really the person who can turn off the switch on all of our climate action,” said Steve Pedery of the Oregon Wildlife Conservation Leaders Fund, an environmental PAC.

In October’s poll, Drazan and Kotek are largely tied, according to FiveThirtyEight’s calculations. This suggests that Drazan could win. If she does, Pedery said such a victory could become a model for Republicans in other traditionally blue states.

“If this works in Oregon, it can be replicated,” he said.

Recent battles over climate heralded a tumultuous governor’s race

Oregon is known nationally for being solidly blue, but its internal politics are more nuanced. The biggest source of friction is in the state’s environmental policy, because outside of blue Portland, the eastern part of the state is home to both old-growth forests and a large logging industry.

“Lumber is to Oregon what coal is to West Virginia,” Pedery said. “There’s old logging money funding all our right-wing causes in the state.”

The power of the timber industry creates more unusual politics than the typical left-right divide on climate change. You can find plenty of Democrats who, like Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, are supported by an industry that opposes climate change policies.

One of those politicians is Johnson, an independent who repeatedly voted against climate change legislation when she was a Democrat in the state House. She is what environmentalists in the state call a “lumberbuster,” a close ally of the logging industry and herself a beneficiary of a family fortune.

The tree-democratic alliance goes back decades. But a growing number of political extremists in timber-rich areas and an increasingly powerful right-wing PAC that bills itself as the voice of Oregonians associated with logging, trucking and agriculture, Timber Unity, have changed longstanding dynamics.

In 2019, 11 Republican lawmakers left the capitol to avoid a vote on a cap-and-trade bill — just enough of them to stall the vote. The dismissal ended messy: Democratic Governor Brown sent in state troops and demanded that Republicans “go back and do the jobs they were elected to do.” When the vote finally took place, the bill failed by one vote (three Senate Democrats, including Johnson, voted against).

When Democrats again tried to pass climate legislation in 2020, Republicans used the same playbook, this time led by Drazan, a newcomer to the state legislature. Kotek, then Speaker of Parliament, tried to push the climate bills through. Johnson provided the key vote that killed the cap-and-trade legislation when it finally came up for a vote in 2019 (it never came up for a vote in 2020).

Timber Unity played a key role in all the chaos, egging on opposition to the bill and GOP layoffs. Timber Unity had by then grown rapidly to become a legitimate power broker in the state, despite the group founders’ ties to white nationalist militia interests. Its influence helped rally truck drivers at the state capitol in support of the walkouts, and its reach helped create the impression that the GOP’s oppositional tactics represented the will of a large portion of Oregonians.

As a result of these ultimately successful walkouts, Drazan’s profile rose while Oregon missed its window to pass climate change legislation in 2020 again.

How the fallout from the layoffs is shaping the governor’s race

Each candidate’s climate platform is a logical extension of their role in the walkouts: Kotek promises to continue advancing the state’s climate goals; Drazan argues that such policies are a drag on the state economy and the limited measures put in place by the current governor via executive action should be reversed; Johnson vows to roll back the governor’s cap-and-trade policies if elected, too.

Johnson trails far behind both Kotek and Drazan in the poll. She has lasted in the race so long because she is also the best-funded candidate, thanks to the state’s richest man, Knight, co-founder and emeritus of footwear giant Nike.

He has single-handedly flooded Johnson’s campaign with $3.75 million in cash and another $2 million for a PAC dedicated to electing more Republicans to the Oregon Legislature. In October, he contributed his first $1 million to Drazan’s campaign.

The presence of a third candidate, boosted by Knight’s money, has upended all normal expectations for the race. In a “normal” cycle, John Horvick, senior vice president of Pacific Northwest research firm DHM Research, said “Democrats probably have about a 5 percentage point advantage over Republicans and gubernatorial elections.”

Political strategists note that since Johnson is a former Democrat, her candidacy draws away support that might otherwise go to Kotek. “There is a real effort to prevent Democrats from defecting to Johnson,” Horvick said. If Kotek loses, Knight’s money may be to blame.

Some progressive advocates argue that Johnson is a poison pill, created by bigger fish to draw support away from Kotek. Recently, Timber Unity alluded to that very strategy on Facebook: “God bless Betsy Johnson! Now for the LOVE of God, can we just stick together this ONE TIME and vote DRAZAN!!!!!”

If Johnson’s presence succeeds in tipping the race to the Republican, using a third candidate to strip Democratic support could become a model in reliably blue states for reversing climate action. All the Republicans need is a backer with deep pockets and a viable moderate or conservative Democrat.

The result of the gubernatorial race in 2022 will have a major impact on regional climate policy

In addition to political considerations, a Kotek loss would also have major consequences for the West Coast’s climate policy. Because of the waivers, Oregon’s most ambitious policy was put in place by a 2020 executive order that set a benchmark to reduce the state’s greenhouse gas emissions by at least 45 percent below 1990 levels within 15 years; it also requires government authorities to come up with plans that reduce transport and energy emissions and ensure that forests store more carbon.

Drazan has said reversing Brown’s orders is her first priority. Should she do so, the greatest and most permanent damage would be to allow uncontrolled deforestation in favor of agriculture and logging. Oregon is a relatively small economy compared to its neighbors, but given its forests, its biggest impact on climate is in land use and carbon sequestration.

Oregon and its larger neighbors, Washington and California, have often worked together to update its environmental regulations. When California banned hydrofluorocarbons used in air conditioning, so did Oregon. Going forward, states will need to work together to expand the transmission of renewable energy projects as they receive federal funds from the Inflation Reduction Act.

Oregon could become a major obstacle to expanding renewable energy across the coast if Drazan appoints pro-gas utility regulators to the state commission. And some conservationists, like Doug Moore, executive director of the Oregon League of Conservation Voters, fear Oregon could become a dumping ground for goods like inefficient cars that can’t be sold in California or Washington.

Climate advocates worry the election is undoing a decade of campaigning to move Oregon forward on climate action. This shift would not be accidental, but the result of methodical, well-funded efforts to give anti-climate candidates a real foothold.

And the effort for both democracy and climate policy is great. “Oregon has been driving a national conversation about climate for quite some time,” Moore said. “With the stroke of a pen, Christine Drazan could relax it all.”

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