SALEM, Ore. — A veteran state lawmaker who built a career as a maverick is scrambling the race to become Oregon’s next governor, threatening one of the longest streaks of Democratic dominance in the nation.
Polls show former state Sen. Betsy Johnson, an independent who left the Democratic Party after 20 years in the state legislature, trailing both her Democratic and Republican rivals. But those polls only hint at the impact she has had on a race in which she has come to encroach on both typical Democratic and Republican messaging.
Johnson, 71, long represented timber country in northwest Oregon. She built a unique niche as a conservative Democrat among liberals, casting votes in favor of both abortion rights and gun rights, voting to grant in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants, and against minimum wage increases and decriminalizing some drugs.
In 2016, Johnson angered fellow Democrats when she backed a Republican candidate for Secretary of State. This year, she has won support from former Gov. Ted Kulongoski (D) and Rep. Kurt Schrader (D), who lost his primary election to a more liberal challenger in May. Johnson has also attracted $3.75 million from Phil Knight, the Nike founder who has poured millions over the years into Republican political campaigns.
“She’s trying to do something really complex,” said Jim Moore, a political scientist at Pacific University. “She’s saying, ‘I’m going to take the best of both parties.’”
In walking that tightrope, Johnson, a self-described “equal opportunity pisser-offer,” has achieved something rare of an independent candidate: She has emerged as an equal threat to both of her rivals — former state House Speaker Tina Kotek (D) and state House Minority Leader Christine Drazan (R).
Kotek called Johnson is the “conservative” candidate who “has a long record of siding with corporate special interests.” Drazan’s campaign manager accuses Johnson and Kotek of “wearing the same partisan jersey.”
Johnson has encroached on what might have otherwise been Drazan’s turf, campaigning against the boogeyman usually preferred by Oregon Republicans — Portland, the state’s largest city. In advertisements, Johnson has depicted a dystopian image of filth, crime and squalor.
“I refuse to stand by while Oregon goes to hell in a hand basket,” Johnson said in a campaign ad from July showing her driving by rows of homeless camps in Portland. “Politicians talk, but I get things done.”
In targeting Portland, Johnson hopes to appeal to the types voters who sent her to the legislature so many times before. Residents in her old district are historically Democratic, blue collar union workers whose livelihoods are tied to the forests that produce timber and the ports that export timber to Asia.
But many of those voters have changed their stripes in recent years. Donald Trump became the first Republican presidential nominee since Herbert Hoover in 1928 to carry Columbia County; he also carried Tillamook County, another former labor stronghold.
All three candidates have been among the best funded in state history. Campaign reports filed through the end of September show Kotek and Drazan have both raised about $10 million. Johnson reported raising $8.8 million and spending $10 million.
Recent polls have showed Johnson pulling a little under 20 percent of the vote. Those same polls show a neck-and-neck race at the top. A DHM Research poll conducted the last week of September for The Oregonian showed Drazan and Kotek locked in a statistical tie, 32%-31%.
“She’s clear and direct,” said John Horvick, the polling firm’s senior vice president. “I think a lot of voters find that refreshing, but I see her running against these two candidates rather than running for something.”
The race to replace outgoing Gov. Kate Brown (D), who faces term limits, may represent the best chance Republicans have had to win control of Oregon in more than a generation. The last time a Republican won the governor’s mansion was in 1982, when Victor Atiyeh won a second term.
Tim Gruver is a journalist and writer based in Salem, Ore. His reporting on politics and public policy has appeared in Politico, The Oregonian and The Washington Newspaper Publishers Association. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.