Could the Blue Wave Leave Oregon Dry?

Its progressive governor is in a surprisingly tough race—suggesting white suburban Democrats might be more fickle than we thought.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown
Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

Back in April, the first time President Trump tried to spark a race panic about a caravan of migrants heading to the southern border, the White House announced it would contemplate mobilizing the National Guard. To which Oregon Gov. Kate Brown responded that if asked, she would say: No. “I have no intention of allowing Oregon’s guard troops to be used to distract from [Trump’s] troubles in Washington,” Brown wrote on Twitter. It was one in a series of moves that would earn her praise as “the nation’s most progressive governor.”

Now, once again, a caravan of migrants has made its way from Central America to Mexico. And once again, Trump cannot stop talking about it. But Oregon’s governor is focused on something else: her own re-election campaign, which is closer than you would think for a Democratic incumbent, in a state that hasn’t elected a GOP governor in more than 30 years, in a year in which Republicans trail Democrats on a generic congressional ballot by 10 points. Has the blue wave left Oregon dry?

While the math Democrats need to take control of Congress commands the most attention in the final stretch of the 2018 election season, the party appears poised to take its best position in governors’ races in a decade. As my colleague Josh Voorhees wrote last month, Democrats have a credible chance of taking 12 states from the GOP, including the sweet prospect of a Midwestern romp across Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois, Ohio, and Michigan. Only in Connecticut and Oregon are Democrats on the defensive, and only in Oregon do they have an incumbent, Brown, in a race that RealClearPolitics and the Cook Political Report are both calling a toss-up.

It may not, in fact, be that close. Brown has maintained a consistent if narrow lead in polls all fall, and FiveThirtyEight has Oregon as a likely win for Democrats. But her race does illustrate, for Democrats, the limits of the all-encompassing political foil that is Donald Trump.

That’s because in Oregon, where there is no Senate campaign, Trump appears to be an afterthought. And with culture-war issues he arouses out of play, it turns out that middle-class white Democrats are a fickle lot. In Massachusetts and Maryland, they are certain to send a pair of Republican governors—Charlie Baker and Larry Hogan, respectively—cruising to second terms. In Morning Consult’s summer poll, Baker, Hogan, and New Hampshire’s Chris Sununu were the first-, second-, and fourth-most popular governors in the country.* Their moderate, brass-tacks shtick is the model that Brown’s opponent, Oregon state Rep. Knute Buehler, is aiming for.

Things aren’t going badly in Oregon, either. Brown, who took office in 2015 after the resignation of Gov. John Kitzhaber, just won a statewide special election in 2016, outperforming Hillary Clinton among Oregonians and becoming the nation’s first elected LGBTQ governor. “My friend Kate Brown is getting things done,” President Obama said in a video endorsement before the race. Under Brown, the state has realized progressive priorities by passing a minimum wage hike, a paid-leave law, and a tax to fund transportation improvements. The unemployment rate is 4 percent. “The challenge,” Brown told me this week, as if to explain why the good times weren’t reflected in her approval ratings, “is that prosperity is not inclusive. It hasn’t included our rural communities, our minority communities, and our low-income communities, so there’s a lot of families out there who are struggling.”

If Brown loses, though, it won’t be because she lost Oregon’s eastern hinterland (which is as reliably conservative as anyplace in the United States) or the state’s Latino population, which is solidly Democratic. It’ll be because she lost the suburbs.

In some ways, the state’s success and struggle are two sides of the same coin. In the Portland metro area, where nearly half of Oregon’s population lives, housing prices have skyrocketed. The median home price jumped from $250,000 in 2013 to more than $400,000 this year. Wages haven’t kept pace. One of the consequences is a very visible rise in homelessness in the city. Across the state, housing affordability remains a prime concern—as does the disorder it causes. A GOP PAC funded a Buehler ad in which a mother reads her children a book about starving children, homelessness, and drug-dealing day care workers. (Selling weed is legal in Oregon, and until recently, it was also legal to sell weed while running a day care facility.)

The affordability crisis owes much to decades of cuts in Washington, which has left the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development unable to help more than three-quarters of families who qualify for housing assistance. But it’s been an easy point to score for Buehler, a mild-mannered doctor who represents Bend in the Oregon legislature. Just as Brown has to own the intractable problems that a low-tax federal government has bequeathed to states—the housing crisis, declining social mobility, underfunded pensions—Buehler gets to claim he has the solutions. He has said, for example, that he will end homelessness in Portland in five years, though his plan only calls for a commitment of $10 million. (“His plan is a joke,” Brown told me. “An embarrassment.”)

Buehler, whose staff declined a request for an interview, has run on traditionally Democratic concerns like homelessness and education, where Oregon has long lagged behind national standards. For the most part, Buehler’s ads paint him as either a compassionate problem-solver or a moderate popular with liberals. His ads “Different” and “Still Different” feature a cast of female Democrats and boast of his liberal bona fides: on birth control, the right to choose, the environment, gay rights, and schools. For an October cover story in Portland alt-weekly Willamette Week, reporter Nigel Jaquiss found Democrats like that in real life—margin voters who were moving from Brown to Buehler, motivated by concerns about street safety, schools, and pensions.

But it may also just be that Buehler is offering something different. “It’s more that he’s the alternative,” observes Chris Shortell, the chair of the Political Science Department at Portland State University. ”I’m not sure he’s articulated a particular vision of ‘Oh, we can do this’ that’s persuaded voters. But he has highlighted those quality-of-life problems, and that has resonated.”

Oregon is one of just a handful of U.S. states where Democrats control both the executive and the legislature. All but one member of the congressional delegation is a Democrat, and both senators are Democrats. The state has always had a deep-red hinterland—the Bundy occupation was in Oregon—but Buehler isn’t from there. Registered Democrats and Republicans are neck and neck in his district. In the past, primary elections have produced GOP candidates too radical to effectively compete in the general. This time around, Buehler edged out rivals to his right.

Buehler is what Oregon politico Jim Moore called “the anti-Trump Republican.” In a state where the president remains very unpopular, that the challenger has a fighting chance at all is proof that Republicans—at least at the state level—can slip the chains of Donald Trump. A Brown ad tries to remind you that Buehler’s party is Trump’s, with a snippet of the Kavanaugh hearings and images of the president across the screen from the candidate. Basically, it hasn’t worked.

Brown isn’t just bringing up Trump. She also makes the case that Buehler is not the centrist in the mode of legendary Oregon Gov. Tom McCall that he portrays himself as. “I feel like I’m running against two opponents,” she says. “Rep. Buehler and candidate Buehler.” Buehler may believe in climate change, but the Oregon League of Conservation Voters isn’t convinced. He may want to alleviate the housing crunch in Portland, but he’s against the affordable housing bond measure that would dedicate more money to the cause. He has wavered on vaccines and the state’s long-standing sanctuary law.

If Buehler unseats Brown on Nov. 6, it will be because he managed to win over former Brown voters while carrying the state’s very conservative rural GOP base. In 2016, Oregon Secretary of State Dennis Richardson became the first Republican to win a statewide office in years. People in Oregon on both sides of the aisle will say it is a purple state, however blue it looks on paper.

The wild card here: The number of unaffiliated voters has spiked since Brown passed a motor-voter law, which (together with the state’s postal voting) may counteract the low turnout of a midterm with no Senate race. Thanks in part to Kate Brown, it has never been easier to vote in Oregon. Her odds for a second term will depend on who does.

Correction, Nov. 5, 2018: This piece originally misstated the name of New Hampshire’s governor. He is Chris Sununu, not John Sununu.