SALEM, Ore. — A former Oregon lawmaker who flew a helicopter around an erupting Mount St. Helens as a young woman aims to upend state politics by running as an unaffiliated candidate for governor .
Betsy Johnson, who served in both the Oregon Senate and House and belonged to – and then left – the Republican and Democratic parties, sees a path to victory with the growing polarization of the two main parties.
The same goes for candidates running as independents in major races in at least two other states.
In California, Anne Marie Schubert, the Sacramento County district attorney whose office led the prosecution of the Golden State Killer, is running as independent attorney general, after quitting the Republican Party in 2018. She must survive the primary from California on Tuesday. The first two voters move on to the general election.
“I’ve been told a million times that I have to be a Republican or a Democrat to win the race for Attorney General. I’ll say it a million more times: No I don’t,” Schubert tweeted with confidence last month.
And in Utah, former CIA case manager Evan McMullin is running as an independent in a race for the US Senate. Surprisingly, Utah Democrats are backing McMullin instead of one of their own in hopes of defeating incumbent Sen. Mike Lee, a Republican, in the staunchly red state.
Among the Republican voters McMullin is courting are those who do not support former President Donald Trump. McMullin recently tweeted that his opponent is “aligning himself with Donald Trump time and time again. This includes working behind the scenes to help overturn the 2020 election and keep Donald Trump in power.”
The Republican and Democratic parties have dominated American politics since the 1850s. These days, they have taken sharply opposing positions on gun control, abortion rights, policing, climate change and more. again, leaving plenty of in-between opportunities for independent and third-party applicants.
A year ago, 31% of registered voters identified themselves as independents or members of third parties in states that allow them to indicate their party affiliation on registration forms, according to an analysis by Ballotpedia. A total of 40% registered as Democrats and 29% as Republicans in those 31 states, Washington, DC and the US Virgin Islands.
But when it comes to the ballot box, this slice of unaffiliated/third party voters did not translate into independents claiming many victories.
Trump’s election as president in 2016 arguably deepened the rift between liberals and conservatives. But that didn’t cause large numbers of unaffiliated voters to abandon the two major parties in the 2018 or 2020 elections in favor of alternative candidates, analysts said.
“What ultimately happens with voters is that they usually respond to polls or focus groups, talking about how they want someone outside of the two parties, but in practice, they tend to vote and behave mostly like supporters (Democrats or Republicans),” said Jake Grumbach, assistant professor of political science at the University of Washington.
There are only two independents in the US Senate, Angus King, a former governor of Maine who won a landslide victory in 2012, and Bernie Sander of Vermont, who was first elected to the Senate in 2006. Both caucuses with Democrats.
Retired professional wrestler Jesse Ventura’s winning run as the Reform Party’s candidate for governor of Minnesota in 1998 is a distant memory.
Former radio personality Cory Hepola attempted to follow in Ventura’s footsteps this year, as part of Andrew Yang’s new Forward Party.
But Hepola dropped out of the Minnesota gubernatorial race on Wednesday, saying 2022 is “unlikely to be the breakthrough year.”
Johnson, however, is betting on voter discontent to boost his run in Oregon. His campaign war chest already exceeds $8.6 million, including $1.75 million from Nike co-founder Phil Knight. His reported total was higher than that of the Democratic and Republican candidates combined. Johnson won the endorsements of a former Democratic governor and a former Republican U.S. senator.
Related:Thousands of valid Oregon ballots counted after Election Day under new law
Under Oregon election rules, Johnson could begin collecting signatures last Wednesday. Her campaign must deliver at least 23,744 signatures from registered voters to the secretary of state’s office by Aug. 16 to have her put on the ballot.
Johnson said the volunteers were “ready to go”.
“We have Betsy squads in every county, and we will have presidents in those counties to explain the intricacies of signature collection,” Johnson said.
Paul Rummell, who traditionally votes Democratic, is Johnson’s chairwoman in Clackamas County, near Portland, and sees her as a “great balance between the two ideologies.”
“I’m looking for someone who can help bridge the gap in our state,” said the 51-year-old, who works in the alternative fuels industry. “I think, unfortunately, there’s a chasm … between rural Oregon and the metro area. And I think Betsy is the perfect example of a leader who can help lead the dialogue that needs to happen to mend that divide.
If she does run for office, the 71-year-old will run against Democratic candidate Tina Kotek, a former Oregon House speaker and staunch liberal, and Republican candidate Christine Drazan, a former House Minority Leader.
After:Kotek wins Democratic gubernatorial primary, Drazan leads GOP
Johnson, who wears huge glasses and colorful scarves, ran a helicopter company that helped fight wildfires and got aerial shots for movies. His company also installed seismometers at Mount St. Helens. On the morning of May 18, 1980, her chief engineer called to say the volcano was erupting.
“I jumped in my car and drove like a bat out of hell…I jumped in a helicopter and we were flying that day,” Johnson said, recalling risky flights at the above lava flows. “We were crazy, looking back.”
This contrarian attitude is evident in his stances on issues that are once again in the headlines due to the recent horrific mass shootings and the pending U.S. Supreme Court ruling on Roe v. Wade.
For Liberals who want more gun safety measures, she is a strong supporter of gun rights. She even sees attempts to ban reserve stocks and high-capacity ammunition magazines as a reduction in Second Amendment rights to gun ownership. Kotek denounced Johnson’s stance, saying, “As the nation reels from one of the deadliest school shootings in history, Betsy continues to churn out the NRA talking points.”
To conservatives who want to ban or restrict abortions, Johnson is unabashedly in favor of a woman’s right to choose.
Johnson is running against all odds — the last time an unaffiliated candidate was elected governor of Oregon was about 90 years ago. She could also be a spoiler for Democrats or Republicans, depending on which candidate she draws votes from.
Kotek could be vulnerable if enough moderate Democrats and unaffiliated voters opt for Johnson. While Oregon hasn’t elected a Republican governor since 1982, Democrat Kate Brown – now term-limited – edged Republican Knute Buehler by just 6% in the 2018 election.
James Foster, professor emeritus of political science at Oregon State University-Cascades in Bend, expects Kotek to win. But he’s not ruling out a Johnson win or a spoiler. Foster said if inflation continues to soar, voters may move away from “status quo politicians”, giving Johnson some traction.
“A lot can happen between now and November in this crazy upside down world we have,” Foster said. “My wife and I listened to a speech by Betsy Johnson. She’s a hell of a speaker.”