While running for governor as an unaffiliated candidate, former state senator Betsy Johnson was able to stay above the fray of a heated primary battle in May.

This placidity may soon be over.

A new Democratic-backed Political Action Committee said it was implementing a messaging strategy against Johnson, a former Democrat who some party members believe could siphon needed votes from his eventual nominee in November. The PAC, Oregonians for Ethics, says it will explain to voters that Johnson’s record is more conservative than they might think.

FILE: State Senator Betsy Johnson, D-Astoria, holds a woodcut representing the state house during a Timber Unity rally in front of the Oregon Capitol in Salem, Oregon in February 2020.

Bradley W. Parks/OPB

“Former State Senator Johnson will not speak to Oregonians about her stances against the environment and the fight against climate change, her work to thwart common sense gun safety measures, her attack on the interests and well-being of working families and more,” Debby said. Garman, a Hillsboro resident who is listed as the committee’s director. “We believe that for democracy to work, it is essential that voters know the facts. During the election, we will work to provide these facts to Oregon voters.

Oregonians for Ethics was formed in February and has so far only brought in one contribution: $49,500 from polls donated by the National Democratic Governors Association. History suggests a lot more money could be on the way. The DGA donated more than $2 million to help Governor Kate Brown meet a challenge in 2018.

Sam Newton, a spokesman for the governors organization, declined to answer questions on Monday, referring an inquiry to Garman.

In an email, Garman described the new group as a “broad coalition of Oregonians who have come together to ensure voters have an accurate understanding of the gubernatorial candidates’ records” and suggested that the PAC could target more people than Johnson. She did not respond to questions about how much the PAC planned to spend or sources of funding.

Johnson spent 20 years in the Oregon Legislature and was often the most conservative member of the Democratic caucus. His friendly relationship with forestry groups helped kill a bill to cap and reduce state carbon emissions in 2019 — a proposal Garman has fervently supported. Johnson has reliably voted against gun control proposals, such as opposing a 2020 bill that required guns to be stored securely when not in use, and banned weapons concealed in the Capitol.

But Johnson is also against abortion restrictions and has sided with Democrats in key votes like a 2019 bill to create a new Oregon business tax to fund public schools. Both of these positions could hurt her as she tries to win the support of conservative voters.

So far, Johnson’s sales pitch has resonated with Oregon’s wealthy. The candidate has raised more than $6 million in the race, far more than any of the candidates vying for the May primaries.

Johnson’s campaign did not immediately respond to a survey on Monday, but the candidate has often said she expects to come under attack from major parties. When news emerged last week that Nike co-founder Phil Knight had donated $1 million to his campaign, Johnson said in a statement: “Without the money and machines of the two-party system , I need all the help I can get to save Oregon.”

As an unaffiliated candidate, Johnson is taking a rare path to the November ballot. Rather than vying for a party’s nomination, she plans to collect around 23,750 signatures from voters who support her.


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