With Oregon governor’s race fragmenting voter blocs, Betsy Johnson has a challenge

The now-former state senator must peel off Democratic votes to have chance for a win

December 16, 2021 6:00 am

Ballots have been set out for the vote-by-mail May 17 primary that includes Oregon governor. (Salem Reporter)

Most of the discussion around former state Senator Betsy Johnson’s independent entry into the 2022 Oregon governor’s race concerns whether she might be a spoiler for the Democrats or maybe herself a winner of the race.

In evaluating that, the question to ask will be: How persuasive is she?

Start with the prospect that the Democratic state senator from Scappoose might win, which is not unreasonable. Neither major party is especially popular in Oregon; the number of Oregon voters registering neither red nor blue is unusually large.

Oregon has chosen an independent governor before, in 1930: Julius Meier (of Meier and Frank fame). No Oregon indies since have come close, though one or two arguably were spoilers in battles of the major parties.

A few have won governorships, in recent times, in other states. In 2018, Bill Walker was elected governor of Alaska, though he was allied with Democratic forces that year. In 2010 Lincoln Chafee was elected governor of Rhode Island; he previously was a Republican U.S. senator. And in 1994 and 1998, Angus King was elected governor of Maine and since to the U.S. Senate there; the first time he won with 35.4%of the vote. (If you’re thinking about Jesse Ventura of Minnesota, remember that he was a Reform Party nominee.)

All these cases involved large dollops of luck and unusual circumstances.

Might circumstances help Johnson?

Oregon’s political wild card is the Independent Party of Oregon. Positioned as a home for disaffected Democrats and Republicans, it has in the past decade gained at times more than 100,000 members, scattered remarkably evenly around the state. So far it apparently has not been a major factor in top-ballot races. Could it be if – as may happen – the Independent Party backs Johnson?

IPO members weigh in on endorsements – normally the party does not nominate its own candidates –  and those choices have indicated more Republican support than Democratic. (It’s one legislator, state Sen. Brian Boquist, had been a Republican.)

An IPO-backed Johnson campaign might draw from the Republican nominee (whoever that may be) as much if not more as from the Democratic. Much of Johnson’s fundraising and big-name support – – so far comes from Republicans. That includes Knute Buehler, Republican nominee for governor in 2018, who endorsed her on December 7

Her positioning still is fuzzy: She has declared herself a centrist, but what does that mean? How would it apply in practice? What kind of people would she appoint? What would be her priorities? The answers that emerge could help or hurt her.

Johnson has a clear advantage in fundraising, which has topped $2 million so far, more than any other candidate in the field. That’s proof of serious candidacy, but be wary of attaching too much importance to it. Political battlefields large and small are littered with contenders who outspent their opposition and still got beat.

She is developing a large political network around the state, which may be more important than the money. So far much of that too seems to come from the Republican as from the Democratic side – which if true would mean a Democrat would still be well set. Whether she can draw heavily from less liberal Democrats may depend a lot on how those candidates campaign and who the nominee is.

I mention the partisan segments of support for this reason. In recent elections, Democratic candidates for governor have won an outright majority of the vote in most races (that was true in 2018 and 2016), which means that a non-Democrat would need to attract a lot of people who have been voting routinely for Democrats in recent elections.

That’s difficult.

High political polarization is our lot today, and getting people to cross the party line on the ballot is harder. Many voters, Democrats especially, are well aware of the Nader-Stein effect where a vote for a non-traditional candidate could throw an election to an unwanted winner. Few Oregon Democrats would want to toss this race to the Republican.

Johnson’s main hope must be that she catches fire and that either the Democratic nominee implodes, or that both major party candidates do; that she becomes perceived as a front runner; and that enough Democrats see her as an acceptable option. To win, Johnson has to peel off enough reliably Democratic voters to make a difference.

How convincing will she be? Her campaign probably rises or falls on that question.

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Randy Stapilus

Randy Stapilus has researched and written about Northwest politics and issues since 1976 for a long list of newspapers and other publications. A former newspaper reporter and editor, and more recently an author and book publisher, he lives in Carlton.