Betsy Johnson won less than 9% of the vote in the gubernatorial election. (Campaign photo)
The core support for Betsy Johnson, the unaffiliated candidate for governor in the election, was almost surely a lot different six months ago than it was when the ballots were cast.
Polling from last spring up into September put her in third place but not by much: She was pulling numbers just above and below 20%, which would be poor in a two-way race but respectable in a three-way, which is where she was. Since polling numbers easily can shift by 10 points or more in the last two or three months of a campaign, that theoretically put her not far from first place, a position which, in fact, would be bouncing between Democrat Tina Kotek (who ultimately won) and Republican Christine Drazan.
The talk grew loud several months ago that Johnson could become only the second person – the first being Julius Meier in 1930 – elected governor of Oregon outside of the two major parties.
We now know that it didn’t happen. We also know that by the time votes were cast, Johnson did not gain more support after the early stages of her campaign but rather lost most of it, finishing with a modest 8.6% of the vote.
What happened, and what can we learn about Oregon politics from the still-significant vote she did receive?
In most Oregon counties she received between 7% and 10% of the vote. She scored higher than that in 10 counties: Clatsop (22.9%), Columbia (20.8%), Gilliam (20.7%), Tillamook (17.8%), Jefferson (12.1%), Wheeler (11.6%), Wasco (10.9%), Deschutes (10.5%), Sherman (10.5%) and Lincoln (10,1%). All have something in common: She has had long-standing personal connections to those areas, or at least to their media and marketing communities. Clatsop and Columbia were the core of the legislative districts she represented for many years, and Tillamook and Lincoln counties were nearby. Johnson grew up in and has had long-standing ties to the Deschutes and Jefferson county areas, and the remaining counties are closely connected to that region.
All this is evidence of personal loyalty among the people who have known her best – but only to a point. That she could not obtain even a quarter of the vote in her home county (Columbia), where for many years she had been not just a popular and respected elected official but a beloved local icon, is striking, and suggests some counter-currents also were at play.
Politically, these counties relatively supporting Johnson are a mix, but with the partial exceptions of Lincoln, Clatsop and Deschutes are Republican-leaning.
What about the counties – five of them – where she performed relatively poorly? These are Malheur (5.1%), Lake (5.9%), Klamath (6.1%), Wallowa (6.4%) and Umatilla (6.7%), all places that run very strongly Republican. But that alone wasn’t decisive; she fared better in other very Republican counties.
A speculation: Early-day Johnson voters who leaned Republican left her cadre sooner and in larger numbers.
Here’s what the numbers seem to tell me, in a general way, about what happened:
The race probably was not far from a true three-way contest at one point, about the time of the May primary election, but then partisanship sank in. I suspect the first major response came among many Republicans, when they saw that their nominee, Drazan, was generating strong appeal and might have a better chance of reaching out into the middle of the electorate than their previous nominees had. That realization, and the prospect of winning a long-denied governorship, bled Johnson from the right, and pumped Drazan’s numbers.
Over time, that, in turn, generated a reaction, kicking in through September, among many of the Democratic-leaning Johnson supporters. These were people who were content to see Johnson rather than Kotek as governor, except that if the choice were effectively between Drazan and Kotek, they’d much rather see the Democrat than the Republican win.
That reaction may have been exacerbated (and reflected) by the switch in big-time funding from billionaire Phil Knight from Johnson to Drazan – presumably when he too saw the Republican had a much better chance of winning than did the non-aligned candidate.
Disproportionately, the voters Johnson retained were not those who were notably independent or dissatisfied with the two main parties, but were those who had some personal or regional connection to her. She probably affected the contest between Kotek and Drazan only to the extent of a percentage point or two. Most Oregon voters stuck with their party of preference, whichever it was.
Here’s one conclusion you can make from the 2022 governor’s race: It’s still as hard to elect an independent as governor of Oregon as it ever was.
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