Oregon state Sen. Betsy Johnson to launch independent campaign for governor

Moderate Democratic state Sen. Betsy Johnson will leave her party and run for governor as an independent, she told supporters Thursday afternoon. 

In an email obtained by the Oregon Capital Chronicle, Johnson described herself as offering a sensible alternative instead of forcing Oregon voters to choose between “another left-wing liberal promising more of the same or a right-wing Trump apologist.” 

While she must leave the Democratic Party by next March, she said she’ll maintain the values that first caused her to register as a Democrat. 

“Rest assured, my bedrock values will not change,” Johnson wrote. “I was raised in a moderate Republican family and became a Democrat because the Republican Party had moved too far to the right. For twenty years, I’ve been an independent-minded, pro-choice, pro-jobs Democrat proudly serving the people of Northwest Oregon. This is who I am.” 

Johnson has represented northwest Oregon in the Senate since 2005 and served four years in the state House before that. She’s the heiress to a lumber business, and her father served in the state House as a Republican for more than a decade.

Former Republican Secretary of State Bev Clarno said she thinks Johnson has a better chance of winning as an independent than anyone else. Johnson’s mother supported Clarno as a trailblazing state representative and senator from central Oregon, and Clarno has supported Johnson in her political career despite their different party affiliations.

“I think she’ll appeal to a lot of people because she’s not a die-hard, hard-nosed partisan,” Clarno said.

Running outside of a major political party brings additional obstacles. While Democrats or Republicans seeking the state’s highest office have only to fill out a form and pay a $100 fee, Johnson must collect valid signatures from about 24,000 registered voters.

But she’ll avoid an already-crowded Democratic primary, where she would have to compete with far more liberal candidates. House Speaker Tina Kotek and state Treasurer Tobias Read already announced their campaigns as Democrats, and now-former New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof is moving closer to declaring his candidacy.

On the Republican side, Salem oncologist and 2016 gubernatorial nominee Bud Pierce and Sandy Mayor Stan Pulliam are leading the field of more than a dozen hopefuls. 

Pollster John Horvick said Johnson could be the rare independent candidate to pull off a victory without the backing of a major party. Johnson is well-known among political insiders and the business community, and she does well on the stump and in interviews, all of which could help her, he said.

“If there’s an independent candidate in Oregon who could do that, and I think there’s very few, she’s one of them, if maybe the only one,” Horvick said.

Johnson has been one of the state’s most successful fundraisers. She has a war chest of close to $500,000 in her Senate campaign finance committee, while both Kotek and Read are hovering around $300,000.

During her two most recent elections, Johnson was also nominated by the Republican Party as a write-in candidate. In the state Senate, Johnson frequently votes with Republicans, especially on tax issues, and has been able to single-handedly block tax increases. 

Johnson told supporters she will formally launch her campaign after Jan. 1. She plans to spend the next few months fundraising and building her general election campaign team as Democrats and Republicans duke it out in their respective primaries.