There’s a white wooden fence on the west side of U.S. Highway 97 just north of Terrebonne, an unincorporated hamlet of 1,600 people in Oregon’s northern Deschutes County. It’s a place that for the most part people are merely driving through, either south towards Bend or north towards Portland. The fence is aged and the paint peeling, but posted proudly in bright, brazen blue is a sign that glares back at you.
Terrebonne translated from French means “good earth,” and there is a lot of it out in Central and Eastern Oregon. Large swaths of sage and juniper filled pasture, buttes, and hills. On a political map this is conservative country, ruby red outside the sapphire of urban Bend. As this is the political season, massive shiny 4×8 field signs are speckled across the landscape. The overwhelming majority of these are for Republicans, but Betsy Johnson’s blue signs, fixed with her unmistakable oblong glasses, peek out from many a wire fence and wooden post across the county.
The current Oregon governor’s race is one of the most remarkable contests in the state’s history. It is also one of the most intriguing, competitive, fluid, and volatile elections in the nation. The race offers up three respectable and politically experienced women – former State House Speaker Tina Kotek (the Democrat), former House minority leader Christine Drazan (the Republican), and former State Senator Betsy Johnson (the Independent).
Johnson, who served over 20 years as a business-friendly Democrat in the state legislature in Salem, has turned the race on its head. Political prognosticators almost universally place Oregon in the “toss up” category. Polling shows no candidate garnering more than 40 percent of the vote, and Democrats are in danger of losing their first gubernatorial election in the Beaver State in 40 years.
The first dramatic move occurred last fall when Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times declared his gubernatorial candidacy as a Democrat. The move put the Democratic establishment in the state on its heels and threw a wrench in what was looking like a fairly typical closed primary. Kristof proved a formidable fundraiser, quickly raising $1 million in less than two weeks. The glaring problem: his claimed residency to his childhood farm in Yamhill County proved dubious. In January Democratic Secretary of State Shemia Fagan declared him ineligible to run for not residing within the state for the minimum required time of three years. Once the Oregon Supreme Court affirmed Fagan’s decision disqualifying Kristof, his campaign became yesterday’s wine.
While Kristof was attempting his quixotic campaign, Betsy Johnson left the Democratic Party, resigned her State Senate seat, and announced her intention to seek the governorship as a non-affiliated candidate. Johnson also quickly took a significant, substantial lead in fundraising (Oregon has no limits on political contributions to state candidates), and thus far has raised north of $16 million dollars. That amounts to $2 million more than Kotek and over $3 million more than Drazan, both of whom have the advantage of partisan Governor’s Associations to help bankroll their campaigns. Nike founder Phil Knight, who owns a ranch in Terrebonne, has given Johnson $3.75 million, more than any one individual has given any one candidate in Oregon history.
In May, the progressive Kotek comfortably disposed of her more moderate primary opponent, State Treasurer Tobias Read. Drazan emerged victorious from a grueling gauntlet of a primary that featured 19 candidates, winning the Republican primary with less than a quarter of the vote. As a true independent, non-affiliated candidate however (not running with the Independent Party of Oregon, an organized political party), there was only one way for Johnson to gain access to the ballot, and that was through the collection of at least 23,744 valid signatures from Oregon voters.
Disclosure note: I spent my summer gathering signatures for Johnson and sweating in the sun all across Central Oregon at farmer’s markets, county fairs, rodeos, minor league baseball games, and even the DMV. That gave me a good vantage point for assessing the appeal of a non-aligned candidate. Many when approached were willing to sign for various reasons. Democrats thought she would siphon off conservative votes. Republicans hoped the former Democrat would split Democratic votes and break the Democratic monopoly on the governor’s mansion. Some folks just liked Betsy, whose father Sam was a popular mayor of Redmond, Oregon and longtime Republican legislator. Others were taken by her tough, uncensored style, and were jaded about the two-party system. After a three-month sprint Johnson succeeded in getting on the ballot, turning in more than double the signatures needed to qualify.
So, who is Betsy Johnson? To some she is selling herself as a strongman to solve the state’s many problems unilaterally. To others she is undertaking an authentic attempt to transform Oregon for the better, holding agencies accountable and forcing the deeply divided partisan legislature to work together. Most agree that she is spoiling for a fight and a campaign spoiler.
After topping out at almost 30 percent in earlier polling, a recent poll by Emerson, a nationally recognized reputable pollster, had the contest split at 36 to Drazan, 34 to Kotek, and 19 to Johnson, with 9 percent undecided. Johnson’s almost 20 percent to a non-Democrat or Republican is remarkable in these charged political times, but that still means Johnson and her camp will need to undertake a massive effort to reverse the trend of finishing third.
The poll indicates Republican Drazan is on the upswing, holding an overall positive approval rating; she also earned a $1 million dollar check from Phil Knight last week. Democrat Kotek is in trouble, and has been mired in the mid 30s while holding an abysmal favorable ratings of -13 percent. Her insistence of progressive policies and her closeness to the deeply unpopular governor Kate Brown means she is shedding voters like the leaves in the fall.
Over 90 years ago, lawyer Julius Meier took advantage of political chaos, weak candidates, and the polarizing issue of hydropower to ride a wave of popular support to become Oregon’s first and only independent governor, 1931-1935. Johnson hopes a similar storm will sweep her to Salem, with rising crime, endemic homelessness, questionable education standards, and abortion being the political storms of the day. The key is how many votes can Johnson garner from folks before they retreat to their traditional political trenches?