Saturday, September 23, 2023

The Rise of Republican Christine Drazan in the Oregon Governor’s Race

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Shreya Christina
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Oregon is a reliably blue state that has not elected a Republican governor since 1982. But because of a divided field — and frustration with the incumbent governor — this cycle, Republicans may have a win.

On the face of it, the Oregon governor’s race appears to be a reiteration of the Republicans’ mid-term strategy. Like other GOP candidates across the country, Republican Christine Drazan has attacked her opponent, Democrat Tina Kotek, over the economy and crime, tying her to the performance of incumbent Governor Kate Brown, who is poorly sounding.

But this cycle isn’t just about opposing the ruling party in Oregon, or fearing crime and the economy. The unusual nature of the race – with unaffiliated candidate Betsy Johnson driving around? 14 percent in polls — is also the culmination of a years-long campaign by a small number of special interests seeking to control the state.

At the root of that campaign is the state’s partisan division over climate action. For years, the state has struggled with a conservative minority that has successfully brought cap-and-trade and conservation policies to a halt. Oregon has become a hotbed for alt-right extremists who paved the way for the election, including a pro-caliber group, Timber Unity, whose leaders have been linked to alt-right militias.

Perhaps most importantly, the richest man in the state, Nike co-founder Phil Knight, could tip the scales to Drazan. Although he himself (and the company) like a climate championhe funneled millions to Johnson and Drazan.

Timber Unity’s influence and Knight’s donations may 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 its climate goals.

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

According to the October poll The calculations of FiveThirtyEight, Drazan and Kotek are pretty much even. That suggests Drazan could win. If she does, Pedery said such a win 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 have heralded a tumultuous governor race

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

“Wood is to Oregon what coal is to West Virginia,” Pedery said. “There is old logging money that funds all of our right-wing causes in the state.”

The power of the timber industry makes for more unusual politics than the typical left-right divide over climate change. There are plenty of Democrats, like Senator Joe Manchin in West Virginia, who are backed by an industry that opposes climate change policies.

One such politician is Johnson, an independent who repeatedly voted against climate laws when she was a Democrat in the state chamber. She’s what environmentalists in the state call a “logging industry,” a close ally of the logging industry, and herself a beneficiary of a family logging fortune.

The timber-democratic alliance goes back decades. But a growing number of political extremists in timber-rich areas and an increasingly powerful right-wing PAC that presents itself as the voice of Oregonians on logging, trucking and agriculture, wood unithave changed long-standing dynamics.

In 2019, 11 Republican lawmakers, with the vocal support of the newly formed Timber Unity, left the state capital to avoid a vote on a cap-and-trade bill — just enough of them to delay the vote. The strike ended messily: Democratic leader Brown dispatched state troops and demanded Republicans “go back and do the work they were elected to do.” When the vote finally took place, the bill failed by a voice (three Senate Democrats, including Johnson, voted against).

When Democrats tried to pass climate legislation again in 2020, Republicans used the same playbook, this time led by Drazan, a newcomer to the state legislature. Kotek, then Speaker of the House, tried to pass the climate laws. Johnson took care of the main voice who killed the cap-and-trade legislation when it finally came to a vote in 2019 (it never is came to vote in 2020).

Timber Unity played a key role in all the chaos, calling for opposition to the GOP bill and strikes. Timber Unity had by then quickly become a legitimate power broker in the state, despite its founders’ ties to white nationalist militias. His influence helped rally truck drivers in the state capital in support of the strikes, and her reach helped create the impression that the GOP’s opposition tactics represented the will of many Oregon residents.

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

How are the consequences of the strikes shaping the gubernatorial race?

Each candidate’s climate platform is a logical extension of their role in the strikes: Kotek pledges to continue developing the state’s climate goals; Drazan argues that such policies are a drag on the state economy and that the limited measures taken by the current governor through executive measures should be reversed; Johnson also promises to revoke the governor’s cap-and-trade policy if elected.

Johnson is way behind both Kotek and Drazan in the polls. She’s been in the race for so long because she’s also the highest-funded candidate, thanks to the richest man in the state, Knight, the co-founder and chairman emeritus of shoe giant Nike.

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

The presence of a third candidate, boosted by Knight’s money, has exceeded all normal expectations for the race. In a “normal” cycle, John Horvick, senior vice president of the Pacific Northwest research firm DHM Research, said that “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 would otherwise go to Kotek. “There is a real effort to prevent Democrats from defecting to Johnson,” Horvick said. If Kotek loses, it could be Knight’s money that is to blame.

Some progressive proponents argue that Johnson is a poison pill, set up by bigger fish to draw support away from Kotek. Recently, Timber Unity alluded to that exact strategy on Facebook: “God bless Betsy Johnson! Now for the LOVE OF GOD, can we all just stick together this ONCE and vote DRAZAN!!!!!”

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

The outcome of the 2022 governor’s race will have a major impact on regional climate policy

In addition to political considerations, a loss of Kotek would also have major consequences for climate policy on the west coast. Due to the strikes, Oregon’s most ambitious policy was introduced in 2020 executive order who have set a benchmark for reducing state greenhouse gas emissions by at least 45 percent below 1990 levels within 15 years; it also requires government agencies to come up with plans that reduce transportation and energy emissions and make forests store more carbon.

Drazan has said that reversing Brown’s executive orders is her number one priority. If it did, the greatest and most permanent damage would be allowing uncontrolled deforestation in favor of agriculture and logging. Oregon is a relatively small economy compared to its neighbors, but given its forests, the 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 environmental regulations. When California banned the use of hydrofluorocarbons in air conditioning, Oregon did too. In the future, the states will have to work together to expand the transmission of renewable energy projects as they receive federal funding from the Inflation Reduction Act.

Oregon could become a major obstacle to the expansion of renewables along its coast, if Drazan appoints pro-gas utilities to the state commission. And some conservationists, such as 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 that the election is about to undo more than a decade of campaigning to move Oregon forward on climate action. This shift wouldn’t be accidental, but the result of methodical, well-funded efforts to really get anti-climate candidates a foothold.

And the stakes for both democracy and climate policy are high. “Oregon has been in a national conversation about climate for a while,” Moore said. “With one stroke of the pen, Christine Drazan could relax everything.”


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