Oregonians gather outside the Multnomah County Justice Center to protest the June 2022 Supreme Court Decision to overturn Roe V. Wade, ending a nearly 50-year-old constitutional right to abortion. (Alex Baumhardt/Oregon Capital Chronicle)
Abortion rights will be on the ballot in November in a way they haven’t been in Oregon for years, with each of the three candidates for governor staking out their own lanes.
Tina Kotek, former state House speaker and the Democratic nominee, has positioned herself as a champion of reproductive rights, reminding voters of her role in ensuring abortion is protected under state law and free for all to access.
Christine Drazan, the former House Republican leader and the GOP nominee, describes Oregon’s abortion laws as “extreme” and says she’ll veto attempts to expand abortion access, though she isn’t pushing for the same restrictions as governors in Republican-controlled states.
And Betsy Johnson, a former Democratic state senator who is running as an unaffiliated candidate, is trying to have it both ways. Johnson describes her position as no different from Kotek’s, while her Republican supporters contend Johnson’s stance is effectively the same as Drazan’s.
Abortion is now legal at any stage of pregnancy in Oregon, and insurance companies must cover the cost, with the state picking up the tab for those on Medicaid or who are uninsured, including undocumented immigrants. In the February session, lawmakers provided $15 million in state funding for clinics to expand services and for nonprofit organizations to assist patients, including those from other states, with travel, lodging and child care costs.
Gov. Kate Brown supports abortion rights but without legislative support, governors are limited in what they can do to expand or restrict access.
How big of an issue in Oregon?
When Portland-based DHM research surveyed Oregonians about their opinions on the governor’s race in January, 41% of respondents said abortion was a “very important” issue in making their decision about who to vote for, and another 27% said it was “somewhat” important.
But abortion paled in comparison to other issues. More than 90% of respondents said the cost of living was at least somewhat important, and 90% said the same about homelessness. When asked to choose their most important issue, abortion and racial justice were at the bottom, with only 2% of respondents choosing abortion. The cost of living and homelessness were at the top.
During a June interview, DHM pollster John Horvick told the Capital Chronicle that both abortion and guns serve more as litmus tests for voters. Johnson supports abortion rights and gun rights, and her stances on both issues could prove disqualifying for different groups of voters.
“It’s gonna be really hard for Democratic voters to vote for a pro-life candidate,” he said. “It’s really hard for Republican voters to vote for a pro-choice candidate, and the same thing with guns.”
Len Bergstein, a Democratic strategist, said the abortion issue probably will take a backseat to other pressing issues, including increased gas and grocery prices and perceptions of violence or homelessness, particularly for voters in or around Portland. But, he said, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn constitutional abortion rights in June should motivate voters.
“I can’t see how this wouldn’t have a tremendous impact motivating people to vote,” he said. “And quite frankly, if campaigns and candidates can’t motivate their base on this issue, they have to get out of the business.”
Similar voting records
Kotek and Johnson have the same voting record on abortion rights. Both voted for the Reproductive Health Equity Act of 2017, which codified abortion rights for everyone in law, and a 2019 law that requires the state to cover abortion care for women who receive insurance through religious employers exempt from the 2017 law.
Both had left the Legislature before it appropriated $15 million this spring to expand abortion providers and cover travel costs for women seeking abortions.
But as the two compete for Democratic voters, the vast majority of whom support abortion rights, Kotek is trying hard to differentiate her actions and Johnson’s. In Kotek’s telling, she led the Legislature’s passage of the 2017 law and will fight harder than Johnson.
“If you’re looking for a governor who has actually stepped up to do the work and protect abortion access, it’s Tina Kotek,” said Katie Wertheimer, Kotek’s campaign spokeswoman.
Johnson, for her part, describes abortion rights as a “bedrock issue” for her. She has pledged to maintain abortion rights in Oregon.
“I am pro-choice,” she said after the Dobbs decision. “This is a bedrock issue for me, and frankly, for Oregon. A fundamental right. As Oregon’s independent governor, I will always defend and protect a woman’s right to choose.”
Bergstein, the Democratic consultant, said Kotek starts with an advantage among Democratic voters when it comes to abortion rights.
“I think most people who start out being Democratic voters will see Tina as more of a champion on this issue, so they’ll be more likely to give her ‘credit’ for the issue and want to express that in their vote and their support for her,” he said.
‘Republicans for Betsy’ link candidates
To win, Johnson must appeal to voters from all parts of the political spectrum, including Republicans who disagree with her stance on abortion. Helping Johnson make her case to Republicans is Bridget Barton, a consultant from West Linn who came in fourth in the GOP primary for governor and now leads the “Republicans for Betsy” group.
During her campaign, Barton pledged to eliminate state funding for abortion providers and ban abortions starting in the the second trimester of a pregnancy – which begins around 13 weeks after a pregnant woman’s last period.
Almost 90% of abortions occur during the first trimester, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit organization that tracks abortion laws. Many later abortions result from fetal medical conditions or risks to a potential mother’s health.
Barton declined an interview about her support for Johnson despite their disagreement on abortion and instead referred to a short video she published. In the video, she criticized Drazan for not speaking out about government funding for abortion care or allowing late-term procedures.
“Drazan and Johnson are virtually identical on this issue,” Barton said. “They’re both fine with the status quo. But Betsy Johnson is rock solid on the issues that have Oregon hanging on a precipice: homelessness, crime, substance abuse, failing schools and a horrific anti-business climate.”
‘What she knows she can accomplish’
The last Republican nominee for governor, then-Rep. Knute Buehler, did so as a supporter of abortion rights. The surgeon from Bend repeatedly vowed to keep Oregon a “pro-choice” state and featured a gynecologist in a campaign ad. But he also voted against the 2017 Reproductive Health Equity Act, and his stance that abortion should be legal but rare lost him support from both anti-abortion groups and abortion rights advocates.
This year, Drazan and every other Republican front-runner ran as opponents of abortion – but she hasn’t made it a key issue of her campaign. After the Supreme Court’s decision, Drazan said she would veto “legislation designed to push Oregon further outside the mainstream,” but didn’t share any plans to reverse the state’s existing abortion laws.
Reagan Knopp, a GOP consultant who previously worked for Oregon Right to Life, said Drazan was smart to focus on what she could accomplish as governor with a hostile Legislature. Democrats control both chambers of the Legislature, and unless that changes, a Republican governor would have a hard time passing a legislative agenda lawmakers oppose.
“There’s a good chance Republicans either make significant gains or take one or both chambers and that’ll give her space to do more on the issue,” Knopp said. “But now she’s just talking to what she knows she can accomplish.”
He estimated that about a third of Oregon voters adamantly oppose abortion, an estimate borne out by a recent compilation of state polls from the New York Times. If the roughly two-thirds of voters who support abortion rights split between Kotek and Johnson, Drazan could be in a strong position, Knopp said.
If Oregon does elect Drazan and a Republican Legislature, Knopp said newly empowered Republicans would likely start with limiting late-term abortions and then provide additional government support for pregnant women who might have chosen to abort for financial reasons. It’s a rare area where Republicans would support additional government spending, he said.
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