The independent gubernatorial candidacy of Betsy Johnson is predicated on bringing together two dissatisfied groups – Republicans unhappy with the Trumpy side of their party, Democrats unhappy with the Portland-style liberalism in theirs – with independents to form a polyglot plurality.
She took a useful step in that direction with her call for a series of debates around the state in addition to the traditional Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association faceoff, and “if possible, it would be preferable for these debates to be televised, so that more people are able to hear directly from the candidates.”
That tactic comes with high risk for Johnson in this season, not because of any lack of skill at the podium, but because of landmine issues.
Three things have happened in the last month or so, two in the last week, that has upset that calculation.
One, purely political, came in the Republican primary election, when Christine Drazan, a former legislator who led her party’s House caucus, won her party’s nomination. She probably was the most broadly appealing of the many contenders, even winning endorsements from news media like the Oregonian and Bend Bulletin. The part of Johnson’s strategy based on breakaway Republican voters, who might have been more interested in an independent if the nominee were weaker, took a hit with that result.
The other two, more recent, developments were national in origin.
One was the U.S. Supreme Court gun decision overturning a long-standing New York law on public guns, swiftly following a much-noted mass shooting of school children in Uvalde, Texas. That has put the whole question of gun regulation and rights close up.
That’s not a difficult issue for either Drazan, who, with her A rating from the National Rifle Association, is in line with her party, or for the Democratic nominee, Tina Kotek, who like her party favors stricter regulation. (She has called for a debate centered around gun policy.) Support and opposition for both are baked in. Johnson, too, has an A rating from the National Rifle Association, which may hurt her with Democrats.
The third development is abortion, something I noted two months ago, as a “political issue not top of mind for most Oregonians but (which) may get there in coming months.” It seems to have arrived.
Since the U.S. Supreme Court’s (expected) reversal of Roe v. Wade on June 24, the future of abortion has become the topic of the moment and probably of the weeks to come, and it may affect the upcoming November elections. Abortion battles coast to coast are boiler over already. Oregon’s rules on abortion won’t change – for now – but will be affected by what other states do. And national Republican political figures (notably former Vice President Mike Pence) have called for a nationwide abortion ban, which they likely would try to pass if they’re able after the 2024 election.
The gubernatorial candidates split on this opposite to the way they do on guns. More or less.
Drazan was one of four endorsed governor candidates of Oregon Right to Life, which opposes abortion “from the moment of conception to natural death.” She tweeted her praise of the Roe reversal and pledged to follow up on it; we can expect to hear more about where she would try to take Oregon, and whether she’d back a nationwide ban. She may face a tug of war between a base urging her to commit to reversing the state’s pro-choice policies, and a broader electorate less accepting of that idea.
Independent Betsy Johnson said clearly, “I am pro-choice. This is a bedrock issue for me and, frankly, for Oregon, a fundamental right.”
That could hurt her with Republicans – but it’s not all of the story. Within hours of the Supreme Court decision, Kotek released a memo pointing out that Johnson had just welcomed, as chair of Republicans for Johnson, former governor candidate Bridget Barton. She, like Drazan, was a co-endorsee of Oregon Right to Life, and said of abortion, “My efforts as governor will focus on support for all human life, including all of our most vulnerable from conception.” That could be enough to make some otherwise tempted Democrats uneasy. (Kotek also tied Drazan to several anti-abortion measures that probably would not sell well with the Oregon electorate.)
It’s Kotek, the Democrat with strong pro-choice views (endorsed by Planned Parenthood Advocates of Oregon, Pro-Choice Oregon and The Mother PAC) who has seized the abortion issue with a parade of statements since the court ruling, and for good reason: Her stance is likely close to that of a majority of Oregon voters.
In 2018 a relatively modest ballot measure which would scale back (but not eliminate) public funding for abortions, was rejected by voters 64% to 36%. Support in Oregon for retaining something like Roe v. Wade may be even more sweeping. Earlier, in 2014 (if national trends are any indication, pro-Roe views were less popular than now) a Pew Research study found 63% of Oregonians thought abortion should be “legal in all/most cases.”
Abortion and guns, so often nationally a prescription for conservative wins, could cut the other way in Oregon this November.