As she runs for governor as a nonaffiliated candidate, former state Sen. Betsy Johnson has been able to stay above the fray of a heated May primary battle.
That placidity might soon be over.
A new Democrat-backed political action committee says it’s teeing up a messaging strategy against Johnson, a former Democrat who some in the party worry could siphon needed votes from their eventual nominee come November. The PAC, Oregonians for Ethics, says it’s going to explain to voters that Johnson’s record is more conservative than they might be comfortable with.
“Former State Senator Johnson will not tell Oregonians about her positions against the environment and the fight against climate change, her working to thwart common-sense gun safety measures, her attacking the interests and well-being of working families and more,” said Debby Garman, a Hillsboro resident who is listed as the committee’s director. “We believe that for democracy to work, it is vital that voters have the facts. Over the course of the election, we will work to provide those facts to Oregon voters.”
Oregonians for Ethics was formed in February, and to date has reported a single contribution: $49,500 worth of polling donated by the national Democratic Governors Association. History suggests much more money could be on the way. The DGA kicked in more than $2 million helping Gov. Kate Brown fend off a challenge in 2018.
Sam Newton, a spokesman for the governors’ organization, declined to answer questions Monday, referring an inquiry to Garman.
In an email, Garman described the new group as a “broad coalition of Oregonians who have come together to ensure that voters have an accurate understanding of the records of candidates for governor” and suggested the PAC might target more people than Johnson. She did not answer questions about how much the PAC planned to spend or where it would get financial backing.
Johnson spent 20 years in the Oregon Legislature, and was often the most conservative member of the Democratic caucus. Her friendly relationship with timber groups helped kill a bill to cap and reduce the state’s carbon emissions in 2019 – a proposal Garman fervently supported. Johnson has reliably voted against gun control proposals, such as opposing a 2020 bill that required guns to be stored securely when not in use, and banned concealed weapons in the Capitol.
But Johnson is also against abortion restrictions, and sided with Democrats on key votes like a 2019 bill to create a new tax on Oregon businesses to fund public schools. Both of those stances could cut against her as she tries to woo the support of conservative voters.
So far, Johnson’s sales pitch has resonated with moneyed Oregonians. The candidate has raised more than $6 million in the race, far more than any of the candidates running in the May primaries. The sum includes $1 million from Nike co-founder Phil Knight.
Johnson has said often she expected to be attacked by the major parties, and said Monday she was “not surprised” by the new PAC.
“Both national parties fear an independent governor who represents the people over entrenched special interests,” she said in a statement. “We need a governor loyal only to Oregonians and not national political interests.”
As an unaffiliated candidate, Johnson is taking a rare path to the November ballot. Rather than vying for a party nomination, she plans to collect roughly 23,750 signatures from voters who support her.