Governor’s debate fractured, with 2 candidates on one side of an issue, another opposed

Gun Rights

In a group of three, two usually line up – and did in the latest Oregon gubernatorial debate

A two-way contest of any sort is a relatively simple matter of one side gaining more than the other. Add a third side to the picture and it becomes much more complicated. 

In Oregon’s race for governor, for example, there are three complex strategies – all of them probably too complex to readily resonate with most voters. Republican Christiane Drazan argues that opponents Tina Kotek, a Democrat, and  Betsy Johnson, who is not aligned with a party,  are simply two of a kind, stand-pat liberals. Kotek argues that Drazan and Johnson are just two lookalike right-wingers. Johnson contends that Kotek and Drazan are both extremists on opposing sides, and she represents a center point. 

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That’s been the core message of many of the ads and statements from the candidates so far. How did it play out on Tuesday, when the candidates ran head to head in a debate at Bend on KTVZ-TV?

The candidates almost always agreed with the premise of the questions asked, with many of them coming from central Oregon television news viewers. Almost a score of topics were specifically raised.

There weren’t – and this is maybe a little surprising – any clear cases (the debate on homelessness could be an exception) where all three candidates broke apart in three clearly different directions, though they all had distinct ways of expressing their views. The closest case would be on taxes, where Kotek generally defended recent legislation while calling for some change, Johnson offered a limited defense but emphasized a need for review and probably overhaul and Drazan summed up, “I’m on this stage with two people who have voted for billions of dollars of taxes.”

All three candidates were in agreement on  no more than two or three issues. They agreed with the premise that many people outside the Willamette Valley feel the western metro areas get most of the attention and benefits, and each made a case for why they would best address that. They concurred on the need for better funding and organizational structuring for higher education and general public school policy, but even while coming to similar conclusions the three took shots round the edges. . 

In nearly all cases, question by question, it was a two-way split. 

In two cases – although there was conflict all around – the answers largely put Kotek and Johnson on one side, Drazan on the other. 

One of those – to no surprise – was abortion, where Kotek highlighted her legislative record and support from groups supporting abortion access, and Johnson noted her history as a Planned Parenthood board member and legislator supporting abortion access. Drazan said she is against abortions, but beyond that only that she would enforce Oregon’s abortion laws. That led Kotek to point out that a governor could do a great deal to effectively restrict abortion even with the laws on the books. None of the three answered the moderator’s question about when life begins. 

On water management and limited water supplies, Johnson and Kotek both called for working with local people, but Drazan dismissed them both: “All of what you just heard is a lot of campaigning. … There will be more regulation.”

Beyond those subjects, all of the other questions – on topics ranging from guns, homelessness, affordable housing, the state’s pandemic response and health resources, drug addiction, school standards, climate change and support for small business – broke down mainly with Kotek on one side, and Drazan and Johnson on the other.  

For example, talk about guns was keyed partly to a recent shooting incident in Bend and partly to Measure 114, which if the voters pass it in November would mandate permitting and safety training before purchasing a gun. Kotek endorsed it, and noted that both of her opponents had top ratings from the National Rifle Association. The other candidates were opposed. Drazan said that Oregon has enough gun legislation at present, and Johnson argued about release of some violent prison inmates, but appeared to oppose further gun restrictions.  

Asked about climate change, the substance of Drazan’s and Johnson’s answers were remarkably similar: Both focused heavily on wildfires and forest policy. Kotek didn’t specifically argue with their points, but said forest management and fires accounted for only a small portion of what the state can or should do about climate change, and said they were unwilling to look at any other options, which, she said, she has.

A few other impressions of the second debate, which overall was not drastically different from the first:

No one made much attempt at humor or even lighten the tone: The mood was serious and intermittently angry; Johnson particularly came off as a scold. Johnson and Kotek both offered plenty of policy specifics, though Johnson weighted her answers more toward criticisms of what the state has or hasn’t done; Drazan spoke almost exclusively in broad strokes with no new specifics, even after the moderator specifically asked for details rather than blue-sky aspirations. 

All of that said, there was quite a bit to be learned from the debate. One clear point: The two of the three who appear most often aligned are Johnson and Drazan. 

Debates of course only influence final election results, ordinarily, in a limited way. But if the indication from this one, that Drazan and Johnson are in effect sharing much the same message and in effect mostly splitting one sector of support, that would be a big advantage for Kotek. 

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