Gubernatorial Slam Dunk May Not Be a Slam Dunk

 A gubernatorial election in reliably blue Oregon in a midterm election with an activated Democratic base should be a slam dunk for a Democratic incumbent. However, the race so far seems anything but a slam dunk.

A gubernatorial election in reliably blue Oregon in a midterm election with an activated Democratic base should be a slam dunk for a Democratic incumbent. However, the race so far seems anything but a slam dunk.

It’s hard to watch television without seeing a barrage of spots touting or trashing Oregon’s gubernatorial candidates. Even the Washington Post has taken notice.

Oregon is considered a comfortably blue state with an urban, liberal corridor from Portland to Eugene that virtually guarantees Democrats victories in statewide elections. In a midterm election when Democratic activism seems to be surging, Oregon Governor Kate Brown’s re-election would seem like a political slam dunk. And yet, it may not be.

Brown faces a challenge from Knute Buehler, who swatted away more ideologically conservative competitors in the May primary and has positioned himself in the general election as a pro-choice, moderate Republican committed to solving the homeless crisis and improving health care.

Aided by business-backed Priority Oregon, Buehler is conducting the equivalent of saturation bombing on television, pummeling Brown for a “failing” state education system, numerous administrative missteps and weak leadership.

Brown has begun pushing back. She cites her leadership that preserved Oregon’s health plan for lower-income Oregon families. And she has taken a shot at Buehler’s legislative record on preserving Oregon’s health plan and attempting to reduce the price of prescription drugs. Planned Parenthood is running TV ads in support of Brown that challenge Buehler’s pro-choice claim.

Under the smoke of political gunfire, there is a palpable sense that Buehler is succeeding in Step One of any successful challenge to an incumbent – create doubt and someone to blame. Many people worry about low K-12 graduation rates, are disquieted by the growing specter of homelessness and tremble at rising drug prices. Buehler doesn’t exactly pin the blame for all that on Brown; he simply claims she isn’t doing enough to make a difference.

Step two in a successful incumbent challenge is to gain respect as a reasonable alternative. Tim Craig, national correspondent for the Washington Post, provides an interest anecdote suggesting Buehler may be making progress on Step Two.

“After handing out pamphlets touting his support for abortion rights and same-sex marriage, Knute Buehler stepped to the microphone at a recent campaign event and promised that ‘opportunity will ‘replace poverty’ and ‘hope will replace despair’ in the state. And if elected, Buehler added, he would govern with an ‘open mind and a caring heart.’”

“As Buehler spoke in this working-class Portland neighborhood, Rachelle Dixon slipped into the audience, frequently nodding her approval. That was notable, considering that Dixon is the vice chairwoman of the Multnomah County Democrats, in a year in which Democrats hope to punish Republicans up and down the ballot because of disillusionment with President Trump.’

“There are Republicans I know for sure, ‘I would never vote for this person,’ said Dixon, 51. ‘But when I look at this man and his voting record, I don’t say, ‘Gosh, I’d be scared to be in the room with this guy.’”

Not exactly an endorsement, but also not the kind of rebuke you might expect from a Democratic partisan. 

A robust state economy, with a low unemployment rate, would ordinarily be a major selling point for an incumbent governor. However, Brown hasn’t tried to take credit for the good economic times. 

Buehler hasn’t, at least so far, made the economy a major theme in his challenge, even though it’s clear state business leaders smell blood and are salivating at the chance to have a Republican occupy the governor’s chair in Oregon for the first time since Vic Atiyeh left the office in 1987. Nike founder Phil Knight has reportedly contributed a total of $1.5 million to Buehler’s gubernatorial campaign.

Buehler’s election is far from certain – and possibly not plausible amid the turmoil that has ripped the GOP into pro-Trump and anti-Trump camps. Buehler has tried to steer clear of the wreckage, but that may grow more difficult as the November election approaches, exposés about the White House continue to surface and additional indictments are handed down. 

Brown faces her own intra-party challenges. As witnessed in primary elections in New York and last week in Massachusetts, the progressive wing of the Democratic party has unseated long-time Democratic incumbents with solid records and seniority. Restive progressives expressed impatience with what they called the status quo. Brown could suffer some of that same political fatigue.

The Brown campaign does appear to understand it is in an unexpected political dogfight, especially considering the state’s gaping Democratic registered voter edge. Like an experienced political incumbent, Brown has begun to raise doubts about Buehler, who is still trying to boost his voter recognition. She challenges his pro-choice bona fides and warns that “progressive voter values” could be at risk if Buehler wins.

“All the progressive work we have done, from minimum wage to women’s reproductive health to racial justice issues, will grind to a halt if my opponent gets elected,” Brown is quoted as saying in the Washington Post article.

Political observers suggest Brown has conceded Republican strongholds in Eastern and Southern Oregon and will rely on retaining Democratic votes in the Willamette Valley. That accounts for why Buehler and his supporters have zeroed in on issues of concern to urban voters such as homelessness, drug prices and abortion rights.

By all accounts, it is Brown’s race to lose. Those are always dangerous races to run.