Betsy Johnson is stuck at the wheel, driving through an urban dystopia of poverty and despair.
“God knows we need a real solution to the homelessness crisis,” she says gruffly. Tent cities and trash-strewn sidewalks whiz by. It will require new leadership, she continues, and a different kind of politics that takes the best ideas of Democrats and Republicans regardless of party labels.
“We shouldn’t have to choose,” says Johnson, who is making an impossibly strong bid for Governor of Oregon, raising the prospect that the sapphire state could make a gun-loving, business-friendly, wake-up political independent its right to vote as its next leader.
Or, just as surprisingly, a Republican, which hasn’t happened since Ronald Reagan was in the White House.
With all the focus on controlling the House of Representatives and the Senate, 36 gubernatorial elections are on the ballot in November. Their importance has increased as policies on abortion, guns and other issues increasingly diverge depending on which party is in power in a given state.
Most races are unlikely to result in a party shift. Democrats poised to flip Maryland and Massachusetts after Republicans nominated Trump loyalists in those blue states.
Republicans are hoping to oust Democratic incumbents in Kansas, Nevada and Wisconsin, but catching up opportunities in Pennsylvania and Michigan may be out of reach after the GOP nominated far-right conservatives in those swing states.
That has fueled Republican interest in Oregon, which last elected a GOP governor in 1982.
Former House Speaker Tina Kotek, Democrat, remains the favorite to win November if for no other reason than Democrats and voters who vastly outnumber Oregon’s Republicans.
However, the math of the three-way contest makes it entirely possible that the next governor could be elected with less than 50% support, opening the door for Johnson or GOP nominee Christine Drazan to slip through.
In theory, 35% of the vote could be enough to win and end years of Democratic rule along the left coast from Baja California to the Canadian border.
Drazan, the former Republican chairman of the House of Representatives, is cracking down on one-party rule in the state capital, Salem. “We need real leadership and real change to hold Democrats accountable,” Drazan said as the three candidates debated in July.
But the only reason she has a chance is with Johnson’s presence and hoping she could snatch enough votes away from Kotek.
Heir to a lumber fortune, Johnson served 20 years in the Legislature, representing rural Oregon as a center-right Democrat before leaving the party and resigning from the Senate last December to focus on her nonpartisan run for governor.
She compares to Goldilocks, neither too far left nor too far right, but her sharp personality and harsh attacks on rivals belie little of the innocent fairytale character.
Drazan, Johnson says, “wants to be the first anti-choice governor in Oregon history,” undermining the state’s strong support for legal abortion. Kotek, who is vying to become the country’s first governor to come out as a lesbian, “wants to bring the culture wars into your kids’ classrooms. It would have woken us all up and made us broke.”
If Oregonians were ever hungry for something new and different, now seemed like the right time, as polls show deep dissatisfaction and incumbent Democrat Kate Brown is stepping down as one of the most unpopular governors in America.
“People are very concerned, angry, and worried about the status quo,” said Len Bergstein, a public affairs adviser who has been involved in Oregon politics since the 1970s.
After deadly wildfires, years of the pandemic, and weeks of right-versus-left protests that turned parts of downtown Portland into an armed encampment, “there are a lot of people who feel like we’re lost,” Bergstein said.
Johnson capitalizes on those frustrations with her TV ad, which drives through tainted Portland, and her contemptuous synopsis of the two major parties. “Oregonians distrust the radical right,” she says. “And they’re afraid of the progressive left.”
For all its apparent frustration, however, Oregon is not Alabama or Arkansas, to name two deeply conservative bastions, and several of Johnson’s positions clearly cut against the state’s political grain.
As the proud owner of a Cold War-era machine gun, she responds to the devastation of gun violence by ticking off NRA talking points about increasing school security and improving mental health services.
Her preferred method of combating climate change, improving the management of Oregon’s forests, is reminiscent of President Trump’s much-ridiculed proposal that the country rake its forests to prevent wildfires.
It sounds populist and promises to be a voice for the “sour” but has benefited well from the support of CEOs and other wealthy people. Phil Knight, the billionaire founder of Nike and Oregon’s richest man, has raked in $1.75 million and helped Johnson outperform her opponents.
For her part, after years in power, Kotek has the unenviable task of convincing voters that things, bad as they seem, are getting better.
“Regardless of what the other candidates here say today, there are no quick fixes,” said the former Speaker of the Democratic House of Representatives as he opened the first and so far only gubernatorial debate. “There are no magic bullets.”
The notion that anyone but the voters has no obligation to intervene to bring about bold and dramatic change and right the political system from its injustices is widespread and enduring. Many third-party and independent candidates have tried. Most fizzle out in the end.
Johnson has already exceeded expectations with her strong fundraising and solid poll showings. If she takes a few breaks, she could be Oregon’s next governor.
https://www.latimes.com/politics/story/2022-09-13/2022-oregon-competitive-governor-race-in-democratic-stronghold Oregon governor’s race a rare battle in Democratic stronghold