Betsy Johnson presents herself as the candidate for Governor of Oregon who will speak on behalf of voters who are “fed up” with homeless encampments and trash-strewn streets and tired of seeing Republicans and Democrats “fighting like two cats in a bag.”
The former Democratic state senator, now an independent candidate, likes to brag about not campaigning as “Miss Congeniality” and promises to rule from the center. Johnson argues that the policies of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tina Kotek — the former State House speaker who is appearing at a private fundraising reception with President Joe Biden on Saturday – would leave the state “woke and broke,” while declaring that his Republican opponent, Christine Drazan, former State House Minority Leader, would endanger women’s reproductive rights.
“I’m the champion and the voice right now for people who feel disrespected, disenfranchised, disrespected and they’re sick of it,” the goggle-wearing former helicopter pilot said in a phone interview as Biden was heading to the state this week. . “I’ve always been pro-choice, pro-cop, pro-change, pro-responsibility, and pro-alternative to the status quo. The status quo didn’t make room for us, and the only people who were hurting were Oregonians.
The resonance of this message from a moderate former Democrat with deep financial support in Oregon’s business community has upended the state’s gubernatorial race this year – confusing Democrats by creating a scenario in which Republicans could take the job for the first time in 40 years.
Two years after Portland lived 100 nights of protests against police brutality and racial injustice — protests that have often led to violence — the state’s largest city is still trying to restore its image. This recovery process has been hampered by the economic fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic which led to business closures. And the challenge for Democrats has been compounded by the financial stressors many voters and business owners are now feeling due to inflation. Portland also had a record number of homicides in 2021 and is struggling with a wave of armed violence which raised concerns about crime.
The race between Johnson, Kotek and Drazan to replace term-limited Democratic Governor Kate Brown was already unusual as a showdown between three women in what could be a record year for female gubernatorial candidates.
But Johnson has also pulled off a rare feat for an independent candidate by keeping pace with fundraising with major party candidates by drawing on his connections to business leaders. Nike co-founder Phil Knight donated $3.75 million to Johnson’s campaign before appearing shift allegiances to Drazan with a $1 million contribution earlier this month.
Johnson’s presence in the race has been an unexpected boon for Republicans, who make up only about a quarter of the electorate. Democrats make up about 34% of voters in the state, and unaffiliated Oregonians make up nearly 35%, according to the most recent numbers from the Oregon Secretary of State.
Jim Moore, a political science professor at Pacific University, said Johnson appears to be siphoning off more votes from Democrats, creating what is essentially a tie between Kotek and Drazan in a state Biden won by 16 points in 2020.
“Voters are increasingly unhappy with what Democrats are doing, but they don’t want to go to Republicans who have gone further to the right,” Moore said. This led to support for Johnson among disgruntled Democrats and the state’s growing ranks of unaffiliated voters.
“There’s just a frustration that life overall seems to be getting harder,” Moore added. “So many people came to Oregon – or grew up here – and said, ‘Yeah, I’m paid less than anywhere else, but the quality of life is amazing.’ And they see that quality of life dropping.
Drazan, a social conservative and a opponent of abortion rights, also centered his message around the idea that the state needs greater balance in government as it tries to tackle rising homelessness, housing affordability and disparities of success students are facing due to school closures during the pandemic. Drazan also criticized the relaxation of some high school graduation requirements as she pushes for a parental bill of rights – echoing the message of Republicans, like Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who will campaign with her in Oregon next week.
“We had one-party control for a decade, which means the legislature has really, really failed to hold the governor to account, and likewise the governor has failed to hold the legislature to account,” she said. during a recent debate hosted by KOBI-TV and Southern Oregon University. “We need balance. We need common-sense solutions that are sustainable – with long-term value.
Kotek counters that Drazan demonstrated obstructionist tendencies when she led a legislative walkout in 2020 to protest against a climate bill. The Democrat argued that Drazan’s decision effectively killed legislation that would have advanced state efforts to improve homelessness, among other issues.
“Tina called for a state of emergency for the homeless nearly three years ago, but Rep. Christine Drazan literally walked off the job – blocking millions of dollars for emergency homeless shelters and building affordable housing,” Katie Wertheimer, Kotek’s director of communications, said in a statement.
“Oregonians are rightly frustrated and want real solutions to homelessness, crime and the cost of living,” Wertheimer added. “Tina will do what Kate Brown couldn’t or wouldn’t, and eventually declare a state of emergency, and she’ll hire crews to clean up the trash. She’s the only trusted leader in this race to come up with real plans that will produce results.
Drazan defended the reasoning for the walkout at the time, saying now was not the time for cap-and-trade policies “because we can’t prevent those costs from being passed on – not to big business, not to utilities – but fair all the way to Oregonians”.
“Homelessness, crime, affordability and education have worsened significantly during his tenure,” Drazan campaign spokesman John Burke said of Kotek. “Oregonians are sick of his excuses and his failed program. That’s why they’re going to elect Christine Drazan as their next governor.