Democrats in Oregon have long enjoyed party dominance and an absence of viable opposition. The governor’s mansion especially has been blue for decades, with party outsiders seemingly unable to change its hue no matter the year.
But in 2022, former state Sen. Betsy Johnson might force that to change.
She’s well-funded, with millions in her coffers and no need to spend money on winning a party nomination. She’s drawing endorsements from both sides of the aisle and attracting top political operatives to her team. One independent poll showed that after hearing a positive message about Johnson, 30 percent of respondents supported her, compared to 24 percent who would support a generic Democrat and 17 percent that would support a generic Republican.
And she’s throwing a massive wrench into the two-party system that’s faced little challenge elsewhere.
Years ago, a third-party gubernatorial bid would be quickly written off in deep-blue Oregon. A Republican hasn’t held the seat since the 1980s, with the state’s urban liberals vastly outweighing its rural conservatives.
But like most states, Oregon’s political divisions have only grown in recent years. Parties have become more polarized. Democrats are grappling with progressive v. moderate divides. Republicans are figuring out where their party stands in a sorta-post-Trump era. And governors have been put on the map amid the Covid pandemic, with state policies playing an unusually outsized role in their constituents’ everyday lives.
Amid those changes and frays in political loyalties, unaffiliated candidates like Johnson might have an opportunity that’s not been available in years past.
“I’m going to win. I'm going to be the governor… There are going to be shots fired at this effort. It doesn't surprise me in the slightest,” she told The Daily Beast.
A native Oregonian, Johnson was first elected to the state legislature in 2000 and built a reputation as a centrist Democrat who wasn’t afraid to buck party. But she says her leaving the Democratic Party wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment decision. Instead, she says it was a result of years of polarization affecting both wings of the state’s politics and soiling practical policies.
“We've gotten really good at legalizing drugs and bad at educating our kids,” Johnson said in a phone interview. “And being able to have a front row seat to watch this urban rural divide tear Oregon apart motivated me to step up.”
And she’s not alone in that assessment. Oregon’s urban hubs in recent years have been a breeding ground for progressivism that some say has pushed the state Democratic Party too far left, leaving moderate voters without much of a home. Oregon’s Democratic Gov. Kate Brown has been a case study of that ire.
Even as the Oregon economy excelled in 2021, issues of homelessness, crime and education continued to dampen attitudes in the state. As with any political system, voters turned to leadership for solutions, and haven’t always been pleased with those outcomes.
In one Morning Consult survey last fall, Brown was found to be the least popular governor in America with just a 43% approval rating. She is now term-limited after assuming the role from Gov. John Kitzhaber (D) in 2015, who resigned amid numerous ongoing scandals. Progressive former state House Speaker Tina Kotek and moderate Tobias Read are among the leading contenders to replace her, once again putting party divisions to the test.
On the left, Johnson is hoping to tap into Democrats that feel left behind by the state party and are ready for a change. But in doing so, she could open up a new can of worms. A split among the Democratic base could thin the party’s margins and give state Republicans new prospects.
If Republicans in 2022 can manage to keep their base together—while Johnson potentially peels away voters from the left—the Oregon GOP could have a chance in the gubernatorial race.
While Oregonians did go solidly for Biden over Trump by 16 points in 2020, state Republicans have a record of more narrow losses to their Democratic opponents in midterm elections. Brown won her 2018 gubernatorial election against Republican Knute Buehler by just over 6 points. In 2014, Kitzhaber beat Republican Dennis Richardson by just over five points.
Republicans have also been emboldened by the outcomes of 2021’s two gubernatorial races. In Virginia, GOP Gov. Glen Youngkin swept the seat in what many saw as a gut-check on President Joe Biden’s first year in office. In New Jersey, Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy narrowly won re-election in what was expected to be a safely blue seat.
But others remain skeptical that Oregon Republicans have a chance in 2022—regardless of Johnson’s role. Buehler, the 2018 Republican nominee for Oregon governor, is among them.
Buehler, who switched from being a registered Republican to unaffiliated following the Jan. 6 Capitol riots, says it’d take the “best of circumstances” for Oregon Republicans to land a gubernatorial win this cycle. As he describes it, that’s unlikely.
He depicted the Oregon Republican Party as being riddled with infighting and having a “deeply damaged” brand following the Trump administration. State Republicans, in his assessment, are still “sorting out the process of what happens after Trump—and we’re not there yet.”
The Oregon Republican primary seems to uphold Buehler’s argument—and is drawing some wild contenders. One of the Republican candidates, Reed Christensen, is under federal indictment for allegedly assaulting a police officer at the Jan. 6 insurrection. Another, Stan Pulliam, has admitted he was once a part of a Portland swingers club. Many in the crowded field continue to embrace Trump—while some others are more quiet about the former president’s legacy.
So, Buehler endorsed Johnson instead.
Democrats, meanwhile, seem to recognize Johnson’s pull. Just this week, a new Democrat-backed political action committee Oregonians for Ethics announced it plans to target Johnson’s more conservative record, including her past votes to block gun control legislation and her position against a 2019 bill to cap Oregon carbon-emissions, per Oregon Public Broadcasting. The group, which was formed in February has had one contribution so far: $49,500 from the Democratic Governors Association.
It’s likely that more money from groups in and outside of the state will be funneled into the race—and toward striking Johnson down.
After the Oregon primaries, which are slated to occur on May 17, the Republicans and Democratic nominees will have access to party resources, including cash, while no-party Johnson will be left to her own devices.
Party fundraising could even have an effect on who will publicly support Johnson, one lawmaker suggested. The overwhelming majority of Johnson’s Democratic and Republican endorsers are retired—meaning they’re not at risk of needing to tap into those same buckets of party funds again.
“I think many of the Democrats are worried about offending the funding base,” retiring Sen. Lee Beyer (D), who’s endorsed Johnson, told The Daily Beast.
Johnson said she recognizes she’ll be without “the machinery and the money of the entrenched political parties.” But she dubs that as an advantage, saying it prevents her from beholden to “the political strings” of a national agenda.
“I'm completely convinced that Oregonians are eager to recapture our trailblazing independent spirit and put the people back in charge, not the parties,” she said.”
One Democratic source told The Daily Beast dwindling Johnson’s support among the left is simply about messaging. They argued that showcasing Johnson’s conservative record will highlight “deal-breaker” issues for Democrats, while simultaneously prompting Republicans to vote for her instead of their own nominee.
Whether that approach—or Johnson’s approach—will work is yet to be seen.
“I'm just not gonna give up on the state I love without one hell of a fight,” she said. “I just—I won't do it.