Leading up to the final stretch of the election, Oregon’s gubernatorial candidates worked hard to make their final pitch to a demographic group that has already received a lot of attention this cycle: college-educated, white suburban women.
Nationally, women who fall into this segment of the population are expected to be among the most enthusiastic cohort of voters; many pundits expect them to register their disapproval of President Donald Trump at the ballot box.
Closer to home, where GOP gubernatorial candidate Knute Buehler is locked in a tight battle with Democratic Gov. Kate Brown, a similar dynamic is at play.
In order to become the first Republican governor in the state in more than 30 years, women in Washington and Clackamas counties, in particular, will be key to either pushing Buehler over the finish line or ensuring his Democratic rival is re-elected.
It could be a tough sell for a Republican in a state with a Democratic-voting edge in a year in which women have been galvanized by President Trump, bombarded by a dizzying number of sexual misconduct stories in the news and have witnessed a record number of women running for political office.
Buehler’s entire campaign has focused on framing him as an independent-minded, compassionate Republican who distances himself from Trump.
“If (Buehler) came off as a strident, uber-male conservative — that doesn’t have a chance to play in Oregon’s suburban communities,” said John Horvick, a pollster with DHM Research.
Horvick said a close look at the campaign Buehler is running, reveals the “hand he thinks he has to play.”
For example, consider one of Buehler’s signature advertisements in a race dominated by TV spots. The 30-second spot features five different women urging voters to support Buehler.
It’s clear, Horvick said, who Buehler is wooing with that sales pitch — and who he isn't.
It's not a campaign "directed at the hardcore conservative base," Horvick said.
According to a DHM poll conducted in October, Buehler had work to do: The poll found that 50 percent of women surveyed had a positive impression of Brown, with 28 percent saying they had a negative impression. That compares to only 29 percent of women who said they had a positive impression of Buehler, with 33 percent reporting a negative impression.
On the Friday before the election, Buehler’s wife, Patty, emailed supporters: “Despite everything Knute has done in the legislature to fight for women, Brown still makes up fiction about his record.”
The same day, Brown hosted a rally with Cecile Richards, the former president of Planned Parenthood and daughter of former Texas Gov. Ann Richards.
Long before Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to replace Justice Anthony Kennedy, the Brown campaign began questioning Buehler’s credentials on issues important to women.
Brown has made reproductive health care and access to abortions a key platform of her re-election campaign. Buehler has proclaimed himself pro choice.
Buehler’s job in this campaign has been to convince non-affiliated voters and suburban women “he isn’t the big, scary Republican man that the Democrats are turning him into,” said Ryan Steusloff, with Ragnar Research Partners.
But Brown has a mission of her own. She’s had to fight the image of being an entrenched public official who has been unable to tackle some of the state’s biggest problems. Buehler has hit her hard on her leadership abilities. Brown has had to defend her record on education to the state's foster system, to how she's handled a growing homelessness crisis.
Val Hoyle, a Brown supporter and the state’s next labor commissioner, has heard the talk about Brown’s leadership abilities. She told OPB previously that women's style of leadership often differs from men's and is perceived as not being as strong.
“I hear people say … 'I’m not sure about her leadership. Does she have strong leadership?' And quite frankly, I hear that a lot about women leaders," Hoyle said. "It is a very sexist comment, because women aren’t seen as leaders. And if you are a strong leader, you get called the B-word or you 'have sharp elbows.'"
Ballots are due at 8 p.m. Tuesday.