It's still a year away, but the buzz around Oregon's gubernatorial race is already heating up. With Gov. Kate Brown termed out, a handful of candidates on each side of the political aisle have come forward, including House Speaker Tina Kotek, former Republican gubernatorial candidate Bud Pierce and even part-time Yamhill County resident Nick Kristof of The New York Times, who's signaled he's planning to run in the Democratic primary.
But in this political climate, when Republicans in the Oregon legislature continue to conduct walkouts in opposition to what they deem a far-left agenda from their Democratic colleagues, an alternative to the right-left dichotomy has emerged in state Sen. Betsy Johnson of Scappoose (D-OR16). Johnson, born in Bend and the daughter of former Republican legislator (and Redmond mayor) Sam Johnson, has served as a Democrat in both the Oregon House and Senate. In her announcement this week, Johnson said she's running as an independent because she largely rejects the extreme agendas of both political parties in Oregon.
"Having to choose between another left-wing liberal promising more of the same or a right-wing Trump apologist — is no choice at all," she wrote in a letter to supporters.
While taking aim at both sides of the political spectrum all at once may not garner her support from those who strongly subscribe to the extremes of one party or another, we invite the more moderate Oregonians—who we argue are more numerous than the other two sectors combined—to give this notion a try. For those concerned about the current political climate and its resultant lack of harmony and action, having an independent—and one as staid and well-connected as Johnson—run in this race should be a promising prospect.
Thanks to Oregon's motor voter law, which automatically registers residents to vote when they register with the Oregon DMV, the number of non-affiliated voters continues to rise. During 2020's November election, Republicans had 753,590 registered voters and Democrats had 1,051,119 voters, while non-affiliateds numbered 945,604, according to data from Oregon's Secretary of State.
While non-affiliated voters voted at lower rates than those registered either Democrat or Republican, this is not a small cross-section of voters, and more politicians should pay heed to their numbers. These are the people who may feel uninspired or even downright disgusted with the two-party system. They are the people who may see the extremes of both the right and the left as harmful and divisive. And while some might align more closely with one side or the other on issues such as climate change or local control, they likely want their leaders to be less concerned with party politics and more concerned with lifting Oregon out of crisis after crisis.
In a time when a handful of counties have voted in favor of leaving Oregon all together, and when virtue-signaling and walkouts have defined Oregon politics more than meaningful policy, having someone committed to neither party may be just what Oregon needs. What's more, Johnson's moderate stance echoes what some in Democratic circles are calling for in national races. This past month, David Shor, a young pollster who has the ear of Democratic leaders such as Barack Obama, shared his perspectives with NYT's Ezra Klein about the Democrats' need to reign in its most left-leaning messaging if the party hopes to retain power during the next election cycle. Here in Deschutes County, a group of signature-gatherers hope to make the races for Deschutes County Board of Commissioners non-partisan. Whether due to a change in messaging or an outright shift away from partisanship, the two-party system appears to be problematic for many.
Oregon's semi-closed primary system (also in need of reform due to the large number of non-affiliated voters in the state) will, ironically, make it easier for Johnson to make it onto ballots in the general election, too. Unlike candidates in either party, who must garner the most votes among party voters during their respective primaries, Johnson needs only to collect some 23,000+ signatures to make it onto the general election ballot.
While we will reserve our endorsement in this race until a later date, we encourage Oregonians, in the meantime, to consider the benefits to having an independent be the governor, and to resist falling into a blue or red camp just yet. Uniting Oregon under a banner of moderation messaging may help turn down the current temperature, and, ideally, allow us to avoid walkouts and get things done.