SALEM, Ore. – A former lawmaker in Oregon who as a young woman flew a helicopter around an erupting Mount St. Helens is aiming to shake up state politics by running as an unaffiliated candidate for governor.
Betsy Johnson, who served in both the Oregon Senate and House and who once belonged to — and then quit — both the Republican and Democratic parties, sees a path to victory with the increasing polarization of the two major parties.
And so do 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 an independent for state attorney general, having left the Republican Party in 2018. She needs to survive California's primary on Tuesday. The top two vote-getters 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 confidently last month.
And in Utah, former CIA case officer Evan McMullin is running as an independent in a U.S. Senate race. Astonishingly, Utah Democrats are backing McMullin instead of one of their own in hopes of defeating incumbent Sen. Mike Lee, a Republican, in the decidedly red state.
Among Republican voters McMullin is wooing are those who don't support former President Donald Trump. McMullin recently tweeted his opponent “aligns himself with Donald Trump time and time again. That includes working behind the scenes to help overturn the 2020 election and keep Donald Trump in power.”
The Republican and Democratic parties have dominated politics in America since the 1850s. These days, they've staked out sharply opposing positions on gun control, abortion rights, policing, climate change and much more, leaving a lot of middle-ground opportunities for independent and third-party candidates.
As of one year ago, 31% of registered voters identified themselves as independents or members of third parties in states that allow them to indicate partisan 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, D.C. and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
But when it comes to the ballot box, that slice of unaffiliated/third-party voters hasn't translated into independents claiming many victories.
Trump’s election as president in 2016 arguably widened the divide between liberals and conservatives. But that didn’t cause large numbers of unaffiliated voters to abandon the two big parties in either the 2018 or 2020 elections in favor of alternative candidates, analysts say.
“What ends up happening with voters is they typically respond to surveys or in focus groups, talking about how they want somebody outside of the two parties, but then in practice they tend to vote and behave mostly like (Democratic or Republican) partisans,” said Jake Grumbach, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Washington.
There are only two independents in the U.S. 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 caucus with Democrats.
Retired professional wrestler Jesse Ventura's winning run as a Reform Party candidate for governor of Minnesota, in 1998, is a distant memory.
Former radio personality Cory Hepola made a stab this year at following Ventura's footsteps, as part of Andrew Yang’s new Forward Party.
But Hepola dropped out of the Minnesota governor race on Wednesday, saying it is “unlikely that 2022 will be the breakthrough year.”
Johnson, though, is betting on dissatisfaction among voters to boost her run in Oregon. Her campaign war chest already tops $8.6 million, including $1.75 million from Nike co-founder Phil Knight. Her reported total was more than the Democratic and Republican candidates combined. Johnson has garnered endorsements from a former Democratic governor and from a former Republican U.S. senator.
Under Oregon election rules, Johnson could start collecting signatures last Wednesday. Her campaign must deliver at least 23,744 registered voters' signatures to the secretary of state's office by Aug. 16 to get her on the ballot.
Johnson said the volunteers are “ready to hit the ground running."
“We have Betsy brigades in every county, and we will have chairpersons in those counties responsible for explaining the intricacies of signature gathering,” Johnson said.
Paul Rummell, who traditionally votes Democratic, is the Johnson chairperson in Clackamas County, near Portland, and sees her as a “great counter-balance between the two ideologies.”
“I’m looking for somebody that can help bridge the divide in our state,” said the 51-year-old, who works in the alternative fuels industry. “I think that, unfortunately, there’s a chasm ... between rural Oregon and the metro area. And I think that Betsy is the perfect example of a leader who can help lead the dialogue that needs to happen to repair that divide.”
If she gets on the ballot, the 71-year-old will be running against Democratic nominee Tina Kotek, a former Oregon House speaker and a staunch liberal, and Republican nominee Christine Drazan, a former House minority leader.
Johnson, who wears huge eyeglasses and colorful scarves, used to run a helicopter company that helped fight forest fires and got aerial shots for movies. Her company also set up seismometers at Mount St. Helens. On the morning of May 18, 1980, her head mechanic called to say the volcano was erupting.
“I jumped in my car and drove like a bat out of hell ... jumped in a helicopter and we were flying that day," Johnson said, recalling risky flights over lava flows. “We were out of our minds, in hindsight.”
That maverick attitude is evident in her stances on issues that are front-page news again because of recent horrific mass shootings and the pending U.S. Supreme Court decision on Roe v. Wade.
To liberals who want more gun safety measures, she is unapologetically pro-gun rights. She sees even attempts to ban bump-stocks and high-capacity ammunition magazines as chipping away at Second Amendment rights on gun ownership. Kotek denounced Johnson's stance, saying: “As the nation reels from one of the deadliest school shootings in history, Betsy continues to spout the talking points of the NRA.”
To conservatives who want to ban or restrict abortions, Johnson is unapologetically in favor of a woman's right to choose.
Johnson is running against the odds — the last time an unaffiliated candidate was elected governor in Oregon was about 90 years ago. She could also be a spoiler for Democrats or Republicans, depending which candidate she draws votes away from.
Kotek could be vulnerable if enough moderate Democrats and unaffiliated voters go for Johnson. While Oregon hasn't elected a Republican governor since 1982, Democrat Kate Brown — who's now term-limited — edged Republican Knute Buehler by only 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 victory or a spoiler. Foster said if inflation continues to soar, voters might become alienated from “status quo politicians,” giving Johnson some traction.
“A whole lot can happen between now and November in this crazy upside-down world we've got," Foster said. “My wife and I listened to a speech by Betsy Johnson. She’s one hell of an orator."