First debate delivers telling first impressions of candidates for Oregon governor

Unaffiliated voters, now more numerous than ever, are more likely to vote on their impressions of personal qualities and leadership ability than the issues

By: - August 3, 2022 5:45 am

From left: Republican Christine Drazen, Democrat Tina Kotek and Betsy Johnson, an unaffiliated candidate, take part in their first debate on Friday, July 29, 2022. (Screenshot)

Candidates for governor are in a league of their own. Debates matter in these contests. Heads turn when the power hitters come to bat. And, unlike in the primaries, these are not events when the voters who show up are all wearing team caps. So, it’s the unaffiliated voters, now more numerous than ever in Oregon, who I imagined in the shadows of the first debate in the governor’s race last week.

I think of those unaffiliated voters as the crowd in the bleachers. They’ll show up late. They won’t take seats behind either of the major party dugouts, and they’re less likely to keep score on where the candidates stand on the issues. They are more likely to vote on their impressions of personal qualities and leadership ability. 

Plus, this is a competitive three-way race, so these voters don’t have to settle for the choices offered by the major parties if they want a meaningful say in the outcome.

This first debate took place in a kind of old timers’ venue – a gathering of journalists in a sleepy resort in Welches, sponsored by the Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association. It’s a tradition that used to serve as a spring training warmup in past governor’s races. But the publishers recognize that what they print about a debate matters less now than what they can show their subscribers on their home computers. So, thanks to the publishers association, you can find a link to the whole thing on the websites of many of Oregon’s newspapers.  Thanks to the association, you can watch the whole thing here.

It was a high-quality contest, well worth your attention, that presaged how this contest will play out in the months ahead.

I tried to view the event through the eyes of the crowd in the bleachers and what they ‘ll see that will shape their decisions. Questions like the following come to mind. 

How would I feel with her as my governor, speaking not just for my interests but for the state as a whole, a state I’d like to feel better about?

How would she rise to the occasion in moments of crisis, surrounded by firefighters, medics and police officers in response to a devastating event? Would she speak from the heart or from her notes?

How would she use the power of that office? Would I feel more like a subject of her administration than a citizen of a shared commonwealth?

All of the candidates spoke at least indirectly to these concerns, but the credibility of their responses and their demeanor in delivering them will be judged by the voters in subtle ways. Those judgments matter; this race is not just about issues.

Who made a compelling case for what brought them to the debate stage? 

Christine Drazan, the Republican nominee, told of her childhood in Klamath Falls, the stresses on her family and neighbors from the decline of the timber industry and her rise through the ranks of the Republican caucus in the Legislature. Her themes were distrust of out-of-touch politicians and the failures of one-party rule.

Tina Kotek, the Democratic nominee, recounted her early work for the Oregon Food Bank and advocacy for children that set her on her path to the Legislature and her get-things-done record as Speaker of the House. She focused on tackling and making progress on tough issues for which there are “no miracle cures.” 

Betsy Johnson, the unaffiliated candidate, went right to her frustration with the major parties, both “woke and broke” Democrats and anti-choice Republicans, but then promised to draw on “the best ideas of both parties.” She called for recapturing “the maverick spirit” of a better time in Oregon politics. 

Who spoke directly to the camera and never checked her notes? 

Only Drazan, who impressed me as more media savvy than her competitors.

Who projected strength as a leader?  

That’s harder to discern. We tend to muddle leadership styles and substance. Partisans play Moneyball; they want runs on the scoreboard. But the bleacher crowd can be swayed by the style of play.

Kotek’s strength is her record, rather than her style. Johnson is long on style, tough talking and blunt.  Drazan was poised and more thoughtful in her answers than I had expected. Her response to Kotek’s question about the 2020 election was refreshingly direct for a Republican candidate.

I suspect that the Kotek and Johnson campaigns feel like the Barack Obama re-election team after his first debate against Mitt Romney. They’re facing a talented competitor whom they may have underestimated.

But, as Obama proved, candidates learn a lot from their first matchups on the playing field, and voters learn more from the matchups that follow. Keep your eyes on the crowd in the bleachers. They and the candidates who court them are going to make this an interesting election.


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Tim Nesbitt

Tim Nesbitt, a former union leader in Oregon, served as an adviser to Governors Ted Kulongoski and John Kitzhaber and later helped to design Measure 98 in 2016, which provided extra, targeted funding for Oregon’s high schools.