Oregon is, for the first time in years, back on the national political map — attracting presidential visits, national newspaper coverage, and speculation that the state could make Christine Drazan its first Republican governor in nearly four decades. All the interest is, in part, due to one person: Betsy Johnson, a longtime Democratic state legislator who left the party to run for governor as an independent.
Johnson, a multimillionaire timber heiress, has virtually no chance of winning the race. There is not, as it turns out, a sizable constituency in Oregon for an independent candidate who is pro-choice but has an A-rating from the National Rifle Association and ties to the far right. If there remains any sort of center in Oregon politics, there is scant evidence that Johnson’s brand of faux-populist grievance politics represents it.
What Johnson does have going for her, however, is the backing of the richest man in the state. Phil Knight, the cofounder and longtime CEO of Nike, has given Johnson’s campaign $3.75 million — money that helped her gather the signatures she needed to qualify for the ballot as an independent, saturate the airwaves, and signal the seriousness of her candidacy to both state and national media.
Why is Knight spending so heavily on what is very clearly going to be a losing campaign? He wants to beat progressive Democrat Tina Kotek, and if the corporate-friendly Johnson can’t do it herself, she can help Drazan. According to a recent poll of the state, 19 percent of Democrats are planning to vote for Johnson as opposed to just 13 percent of Republicans — meaning that Johnson’s viability gives Drazan a boost that Republicans haven’t had in previous hyped but ill-fated attempts to take back the governor’s mansion. Don’t trust the polls? Take it from Johnson herself: “Were I not here, it would be a two-way race and then Christine would lose,” she told The New York Times earlier this month.
Knight made his ultimate objective explicit when he made a million-dollar donation to Drazan early October. He’s also given $2 million to a PAC created by former US representative Greg Walden to elect Republicans to the state legislature as part of an unprecedented financial commitment to ending Democratic control in Salem and has contributed to the Republican Governors Association as well.
Democrats may be on the losing end of Knight’s spending spree, but they’re not blameless. Oregon is one of just a handful of states in the country with no limits on campaign contributions in large part because Democrats have long refused to implement them.
In reality, corporations like Nike have long dominated Oregon politics no matter which party has been in charge in Salem. Democratic governor John Kitzhaber called a special session of the state legislature in 2012 to overwhelmingly pass a bill that functionally guaranteed that the state wouldn’t increase Nike’s taxes. Several years later, proponents of a modest corporate tax measure were outspent and badly defeated. Kotek has promised in this campaign to “get big money out of politics,” but as speaker of the state House she declined to endorse setting limits on campaign contributions. Johnson and Drazan have not signaled any support for ending unlimited contributions.
“Businesses in Oregon have it about as good as they do anywhere in the country,” Nick Caleb, an attorney with the climate justice organization Breach Collective, said. “They’ve got [among] the lowest business taxes in the whole nation . . . . From a straight business standpoint, it’s a good place for them to profit.”
There may be more to Knight’s spending barrage than simple capitalist self-interest. As a means of explaining his support of Johnson and Drazan to the New York Times, the eighty-four-year-old billionaire recounted seeing a “cartoon” of a person snorting cocaine through a plastic straw that joked that the plastic straw was the only thing pictured that is illegal in Oregon.
“It’s mostly just vibes,” Caleb said.
It’s worth noting that Johnson’s presence in the race hasn’t just threatened to siphon Democratic votes away from Kotek. It has also helped establish a right-wing issue landscape centered around houselessness, drugs, crime, and the emergence of Portland as, in Caleb’s words, “a floating signifier for everything that you hate about liberalism or progressivism.”
Portland is still reeling not just from the economic effects of the pandemic and a resulting increase in gun violence, but from the cost of its historic protest of the murder of George Floyd. For its hundred-day-straight show of resistance, the city was invaded by federal troops and routinely portrayed in right-wing media as a fiery, depraved hellscape. That portrayal took a toll, both in the city and beyond: half of Oregon voters now view Portland “very negatively,” while just 12 percent of Johnson supporters and 4 percent of Drazan supporters view the city positively.
Johnson’s vitriol for people experiencing homelessness in Portland and the city more generally has been remarkable, even for a reactionary politician. One campaign advertisement, shot while driving through homeless encampments in the city, features gratuitous shots of tents and a garbage fire. Another, set to swelling music, shows garbage, encampments, and a lone needle on the ground — purportedly filmed in Kotek’s North Portland neighborhood.
In an interview with The New York Times in June, Johnson told reporter David Leonhardt, “You can see the deterioration of the beautiful City of Roses, now the City of Roaches.” She then released a video defending her unmissable dog whistle, claiming that, “The forces of ‘Tent City Tina’ and some woke professor from Portland State are attempting to manufacture false outrage.”
As the race has moved into its final weeks, Johnson’s demonization of the city hasn’t slowed. “I drove by what may have been a dead body in downtown Portland this morning on the way to the office,” she casually mentioned without providing a single piece of context in an early October debate. No one followed up.
In that issue landscape, plenty has been left out.
“Half of Oregon right now is struggling under a mix of diesel exhaust and dust from farm operations and smoke from wildfires,” Yamhill County commissioner Casey Kulla, who briefly ran for governor, said. “Those are things that we are all experiencing together. Water issues… whether you’re an urban resident or a rural resident or a farmer, you’re keenly aware of the necessity of water. I would love to see conversations actually about housing.”
The trauma of 2020, from the police violence protesters endured to the economic and social effects of the COVID lockdowns, is likely one of the reasons why incumbent governor Kate Brown has the lowest approval rating of any governor in the country. It’s also a reason why a number of Democrats believe that Drazan would have been competitive even if Johnson wasn’t in the race.
“I feel like there’s a lot of grasping at straws at this point,” former Portland City Council member Chloe Eudaly said. “Things are getting so bad, and people who don’t have a grasp on how we got here, let alone how we move forward, are voting from a really reactionary place.”
There is plenty of pain to go around. The structural issues that Oregon faces are in line with issues that are plaguing states across the West and the country: rampant economic and racial inequality, environmental chaos, and a housing crisis that has become impossible to hide in both cities like Portland and rural communities across the state. North Portland, the historically marginalized area of the city that Johnson purportedly featured in her campaign video, is the same place where low-income tenants are currently fighting rent increases of 50 percent.
“We’re getting punished by the same economic effects that everywhere else in the United States is getting punished by,” Caleb said. “We’re in an economic downtown that started fifty years ago . . . . State governments to some degree could step in and protect people more, I think they should, but the problems of Portland are related to big economic issues — and I don’t think that any local policies or state policies could prevent them outright.”
Drazan, whose most notable accomplishment as a state legislator was leading her caucus in a walkout to prevent the passage of a cap-and-trade bill, does not plan to step in and protect vulnerable people.
She has announced that as governor she would suspend the state’s clean fuels program and target other environmental regulations, take steps to unilaterally weaken the state’s red flag law, and veto new funding for abortion. She has hinted that she’d like to see people arrested for sleeping on the streets. Drazan has chafed at the notion that she has ties to extremists, but she has been endorsed by the far-right group Timber Unity (with which Johnson is also affiliated), has taken money from a Republican megadonor who has helped fund one of the organizations that organized the January 6 coup attempt, and has featured an anti-government militia leader as a speaker at one of her campaign events.
But Drazan is a credible politician — something that has been in short supply for Oregon Republicans in recent years — and she has largely moderated her positions in campaign appearances, arguing that the state needs political balance. The irony is that Kotek, who was considered a ruthlessly effective caucus leader during her tenure as speaker, is perhaps the strongest Democratic candidate for governor in the state’s recent history. Her campaign is counting on Democratic-leaning voters to ultimately back her as Johnson’s losing effort bleeds support in the final weeks. It might be enough. Or, in this political climate, it might not be.
“Life is just too precarious for too many people,” Eudaly said. “I think there’s a lot of fear and anger, and it’s just so much easier to take a punitive approach to the people who our system has failed than it is to change the system.”