PORTLAND, Ore.—Oregon Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tina Kotek tried to walk back her progressive stances in the race's final debate Wednesday. Her opponents weren't having it.
Kotek said that residents "need to feel safe" in the state and that she has "always supported" Oregon's police but thinks they should be held "accountable." Republican opponent Christine Drazan countered that Kotek "did not support police even when rioters were attacking a police station" during Portland's 2020 George Floyd-inspired protests. She called Kotek "the original defund-the-police candidate."
Kotek also tried to distance herself during the debate from Oregon Gov. Kate Brown (D.), the least popular governor in America. She hit Brown in particular for her failed response to the homelessness crisis in Oregon. But unaffiliated candidate Betsy Johnson said Kotek had contributed as well to the problem, voting for the 2021 bill that decriminalized tent encampments. Brown in June last year signed that bill into law.
With 20 days to go until Election Day, Kotek and Drazan are neck and neck. Seven of the last eight polls show Drazan leading Kotek, with a Hoffman Research Group poll published Wednesday finding the Republican up 2 points. The poll showed Johnson trailing Drazan by 20 points.
Kotek during the debate accused her opponents of "misrepresenting" her record on law enforcement. One of Kotek's own staff members was also arrested during the 2020 protests in Portland.
Drazan and Johnson attacked Kotek for supporting drug decriminalization. Both called for the repeal of Measure 110, which decriminalized all drugs held in small amounts, though Johnson voted for the measure as a state senator.
Kotek defended her vote for Measure 110, saying officials just need to "make it work" by involving law enforcement and providing more treatment options. She said scrapping the law would result in more deaths.
Drug overdose deaths due to opioids more than doubled in the state between 2019 and 2021.
Drazan told voters that both of her opponents would continue nearly four decades of disastrous "one-party" rule in Oregon.
"Oregon is on the wrong track," Drazan said. "They're having an argument about what Democrats should be about. I want to bring Oregon back to balance again, and the way you're going to do that, in fact, is to elect a Republican."
When asked if her independent bid was "spoiling" Democrats' chance for the governorship, Johnson pivoted to attack her Democratic rival.
"The spoiler in this race is Tina—Tina has spoiled the state I love, she spoiled the party that I used to belong to with these outrageously progressive policies that I spoke out against during my time in the legislature," Johnson said.
Drazan and Johnson also took Kotek to task for joining with Brown and teachers' unions in closing schools during the coronavirus pandemic, which state education officials say slashed students' reading, writing, and math proficiency. Kotek admitted that students were barred "too long from the classroom."
Toward the end of the debate, Kotek called Drazan a "threat" to women seeking abortions, saying she would ban the procedure in the state. Drazan said Kotek was "lying to voters" and that Oregon had already codified abortion up until birth.
Abortion "is not on the ballot," Drazan said. "What actually is at risk is Tina Kotek losing power."