SALEM — For decades, a Democrat becoming governor of Oregon has seemed as certain as the arrival of the rains this time of year.
Democrats have occupied the governor's mansion since 1987, meaning more than a generation of Oregonians has never lived under a Republican governor in this Pacific Northwest state.
But this election, another win by a Democrat seemed less certain. Gov. Kate Brown faces a challenge from Republican Knute Buehler, a state lawmaker who describes himself as a moderate and who has been wooing the party faithful, soft-right Democrats, and unaffiliated voters.
The Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan organization that tracks political races, labeled the Oregon gubernatorial election a "toss up." Public polls show Buehler behind Brown by just a slim margin, recalling the 2010 election when Democrat John Kitzhaber squeaked by with less than 2 percent of the vote.
Jeanne Atkins, chairwoman of the Democratic Party of Oregon, said she doesn't put much faith in those polls.
"I actively try not to pay too much attention to all the back and forth that there is around polling," Atkins said.
In the Legislature, Buehler represents the town of Bend, which has more registered Democrats than Republicans but where he's nevertheless managed to be elected twice to the Oregon House of Representatives. He's hoping to replicate that for a win on Tuesday in a state with 966,397 Democrats, 703,825 Republicans, and 874,822 unaffiliated voters.
"I know how to get a group of bipartisan supporters to win," Buehler said.
Notably, he didn't want President Donald Trump supporting him, saying he wanted to stay away from "divisive national issues."
But the country's economic acceleration, fueled by deficit-funded tax cuts, is drawing voters like David Siefarth, of Salem, Oregon, to Buehler.
"I wasn't a supporter of Donald Trump before he got elected. I didn't vote for him," Siefarth said as he was walking in downtown Salem. "But since he's been in office, I think the conservatives are doing some things that are moving the country in the right direction."
Siefarth voted for Buehler, feeling he could do more on tackling issues like homelessness.
"I think it's time at least to give the Republican party in Oregon an opportunity, to see what they can do," Siefarth said.
With Oregon facing an unfunded liability of $22 million in its pension system, Buehler says he'd seek cuts in state and local government employees' pension plan and health benefits.
Online campaign ads for Brown have gone after Buehler on that point, featuring public employees like teachers and firefighters saying Buehler would cut their retirement pay, making it harder to recruit and retain qualified people.
A lot more voters are deciding who will be governor this time around.
Due to Oregon's "motor voter" program, in which people obtaining or renew drivers licenses are automatically registered to vote, voter registration rose by 24 percent from 2,068,798 in 2010 to 2,731,048 in 2018. People don't have to declare party affiliation at the DMV, which has increased the number of unaffiliated voters. It is those unaffiliated voters who might be the decisive factor in the race.
Early voter turnout was record high, even though the percent of those voting early roughly equaled the percentage seen in the last midterm elections because of population growth and increased voter registration.
Brown said she's confident a large Democratic turnout - and Independent Party candidate Patrick Starnes dropping out and endorsing her last week - will translate into victory.
"I'm excited about the level of enthusiasm on the ground," Brown said.
She rejects Buehler's characterization of himself.
"His track record is not that of a moderate Republican," Brown said, noting that he opposed legislation that expanded Medicaid coverage to children who are in the United States illegally and that he supports repealing Oregon's sanctuary state law.
Buehler believes that enough voters are upset with Oregon's dismal record on education - it's among the last in the nation in graduation rates - and the pension debt that it will carry him on Tuesday.