Secession-Minded Voters in Oregon Upend State’s Gubernatorial Race

A gubernatorial race that had leaned Democratic all summer is now considered a toss-up, and Oregon could elect its first GOP governor since 1982.

AP/Noah Berger, file
Portland's social unrest and left-wing politics are leading residents on the eastern fringes of Oregon to contemplate secession. AP/Noah Berger, file

In Oregon’s unusual three-way competition for the governor’s office, voters who are dead set on becoming part of Idaho could make the difference.

The race is between the Democratic state speaker of the house, Tina Kotek, a Republican state house minority leader, Christine Drazan,  and a gun-wielding independent, Betsy Johnson.

Throughout the summer, polling consistently showed Ms. Kotek and Ms. Drazan statistically tied with about 30 percent to 33 percent support each. Ms. Johnson is a dark horse candidate, with recent polling by Clout research pegging her at 21 percent.

In a reflection of just how close the race is, the Cook Political Report recently changed its rating to a toss-up from leaning Democratic, where it had been all summer. Oregon has not elected a Republican governor since 1982.

An analyst for Cook, Jessica Taylor, identified “the presence of a well-funded independent candidate” as the key factor in making the race so close, describing Ms. Kotek and Ms. Drazan as “neck and neck.” 

Both parties have started prioritizing the race. Last week, Republicans pumped some $1 million into the race, while Democrats added $1.2 million, bringing spending totals in the race to $2.5 million for the Republican Governors Association and $3.1 million for the Democratic Governors Association.

Ms. Johnson has raked in millions of dollars from Oregonians and some of the companies that call the state home, including $1.75 million from the founder of Nike, Phil Knight. She appears to have tapped into a vein of frustration among Oregonians who are, in her words, “really p—ed off” with the direction of the state and its government.

Oregon has, for years, been a mecca for political malcontents, everyone from anarchists to white supremacists to the rioters who carved out a “free protest zone” in downtown Portland and battled with police almost nightly during the summer of 2020’s social unrest. 

While Portland has often dominated local, state, and national headlines for its political strife and disorder, the rural parts of the state have also seen no small measure of political alienation.

This alienation has fueled a growing movement among people who live on the eastern fringes of the state that want to break away from Oregon and become part of their more conservative neighbor, Idaho.

A spokesman for the Greater Idaho movement, as it is known, Matt McCaw, tells the Sun that he thinks the movement has mobilized many of Oregon’s more conservative voters in the eastern part of the state.

“People on the east side of the state see things very differently than people on the west side,” he said. “They make their living in a different way and see politics differently.”

To him, Oregon’s recent decriminalization of drugs — including heroin and cocaine — is indicative of the cultural divide driving the Greater Idaho movement.

So far, nine counties have voted in favor of looking into how exactly they would join Idaho, and another two counties are set to have referendums on the topic this November.

Mr. McCaw said that the movement is making some 400,000 eastern Oregonians more enthusiastic about politics, which is likely bad news for Ms. Kotek, given the state of the race.

With the Democratic and Republican nominees in a dead heat, the more conservative Greater Idaho vote could be in the unusual situation of playing kingmaker in the gubernatorial race of a state that they are trying to leave.

Although the candidates have shied away from directly addressing the Greater Idaho movement, they have each made gestures toward the voters behind it.

At a debate in late July, the candidates were asked about the Greater Idaho movement and what their solutions to the issue would be.

Ms. Kotek pledged to spend time in rural Idaho and referenced a study she worked on in which she proposed an “eastern Oregon border zone” where state laws could be altered to make the region more competitive with Idaho.

Ms. Drazan blamed the unhappiness of eastern residents on “oppressive” and “condescending” Democrats in Portland, and suggested that she could bridge the urban-rural divide through respect.

Ms. Johnson appeared to court the secession-minded voters most directly, calling the movement a “clarion call for our government to do something about it.” 

“I believe that the difference between urban Portland and the rest of the state is not based just on geography,” she said. “People that feel disrespected, disenfranchised are really p—ed off — they are angry.”


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