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Democrat-backed committee plans to highlight Betsy Johnson’s conservative record in Oregon

FILE: State Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Astoria, holds up a wood cutting depicting the statehouse at a Timber Unity rally in front of the Oregon Capitol in Salem, Ore., in February 2020.
Bradley W. Parks
FILE: State Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Astoria, holds up a wood cutting depicting the statehouse at a Timber Unity rally in front of the Oregon Capitol in Salem, Ore., in February 2020.

Some Democrats fear that the nonafilliated candidate, a former member of the party, could siphon off votes in November’s election for governor.

As she runs for governor as a nonaffiliated candidate, former state Sen. Betsy Johnson has been able to stay above the fray of a heated May primary battle.

That placidity might soon be over.

A new Democrat-backed political action committee says it’s teeing up a messaging strategy against Johnson, a former Democrat who some in the party worry could siphon needed votes from their eventual nominee come November. The PAC, Oregonians for Ethics, says it’s going to explain to voters that Johnson’s record is more conservative than they might be comfortable with.

“Former State Senator Johnson will not tell Oregonians about her positions against the environment and the fight against climate change, her working to thwart common-sense gun safety measures, her attacking the interests and well-being of working families and more,” said Debby Garman, a Hillsboro resident who is listed as the committee’s director. “We believe that for democracy to work, it is vital that voters have the facts. Over the course of the election, we will work to provide those facts to Oregon voters.”

Oregonians for Ethics was formed in February, and to date has reported a single contribution: $49,500 worth of polling donated by the national Democratic Governors Association. History suggests much more money could be on the way. The DGA kicked in more than $2 million helping Gov. Kate Brown fend off a challenge in 2018.

Sam Newton, a spokesman for the governors’ organization, declined to answer questions 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 that voters have an accurate understanding of the records of candidates for governor” and suggested the PAC might target more people than Johnson. She did not answer questions about how much the PAC planned to spend or where it would get financial backing.

Johnson spent 20 years in the Oregon Legislature, and was often the most conservative member of the Democratic caucus. Her friendly relationship with timber groups helped kill a bill to cap and reduce the state’s carbon emissions in 2019 – a proposal Garmanfervently 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 concealed weapons in the Capitol.

But Johnson is also against abortion restrictions, and sided with Democrats on key voteslike a 2019 billto create a new tax on Oregon businesses to fund public schools. Both of those stances could cut against her as she tries to woo the support of conservative voters.

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

Johnson’s campaign did not immediately respond to an inquiry Monday, but the candidate has said often she expected to be attacked by the major parties. When news emerged last week that Nike co-founder Phil Knight had donated $1 million to her campaign, Johnson said in a statement: “Without the money and machinery from the two party system, I need all the help I can get to rescue Oregon.”

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

Dirk VanderHart is JPR's Salem correspondent reporting from the Oregon State Capitol. His reporting is funded through a collaboration among public radio stations in Oregon and Washington that includes JPR.