SALEM — One of the top finishers in the Republican primary for governor is bolting the party to back the insurgent campaign of Betsy Johnson, who is running as a nonaffiliated candidate for the state’s top job.
Bridget Barton, a political consultant based in Lake Oswego, said Tuesday morning, June 14, that she would endorse Johnson over Christine Drazan, R-Canby, the winner of the May 17 Republican primary.
“Betsy Johnson is a fighter — she’ll stand up to Democrats,” Barton said in an interview Tuesday. “Christine tends to run away from conflict.”
Johnson, a centrist Democratic state senator, stepped down from the Senate in December to run for governor without a party label.
Barton finished fourth out of a field of 19 Republican candidates seeking the governorship in the May 17 primary.
Drazan won 22.4% of the vote, while former GOP state chair Bob Tiernan finished second with 17.5%. Sandy Mayor Stan Pulliam won 10.9% and Barton received 10.8%.
Former House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, handily won the Democratic nomination, receiving 56% of the vote in a field of 15 candidates. Treasurer Tobias Read was second with 32% of the vote. No other Democratic candidate won more than 3% of the vote.
Johnson, Drazen and Kotek are appearing June 17 at the Eastern Oregon Economic Summit, Hermiston.
Barton joins the list of politicians from both parties who are backing Johnson. Republicans include former U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith, and former House Speaker and Secretary of State Bev Clarno.
Rep. Knute Buehler, R-Bend, the GOP nominee for governor in 2018, has endorsed Johnson. Making the switch with Buehler’s is his key contributor in 2018: Nike CEO Phil Knight.
Knight gave $2.5 million in direct contributions to Buehler’s campaign. So far this year, Knight has given $1.75 million to Johnson’s bid to become the first non-affiliated candidate to win the governorship since 1930.
Democrats backing Johnson include former Gov. Ted Kulongoski, former House Speaker Phil Lang, and former Oregon Democratic Party chair Margaret Carter.
Drazan released a list of her own endorsements on Tuesday, which included Pulliam and Bud Pierce, the party’s 2016 candidate for governor who finished fifth in the 2020 primary. Also signing on with their support were Senate Minority Leader Tim Knopp, R-Bend and House Minority Leader Vikki Breese-Iverson, R-Prineville.
Johnson must still get on the ballot. She has to submit just under 24,000 valid signatures to the Secretary of Stage by Aug. 16 in order to qualify to run in the general election.
Political analysts have split on whether Johnson will pull more votes away from Kotek or Drazan.
Recent polls have shown slumping popularity ratings for Gov. Kate Brown and President Joe Biden, both Democrats.
Democrats have won every race for governor since 1986.
Barton said Johnson’s campaign in 2022 offers the best chance to break the streak. But to do it, she says voters have to decide if their goal is electing a non-Democrat or electing a Republican.
For Barton, beating Kotek is more important than the party label of the winner.
“I look at Tina Kotek and I see a woman who is dangerous,” Barton said. “I will do everything in my means to prevent her from becoming governor.”
Barton said the governor’s race in 2022 was a special circumstance that required her to put aside her lifelong political party affiliation in order to defeat Kotek.
“I’ve been a Republican, I am a Republican, I will remain a Republican,” Barton said.
On primary election day, Johnson moved to stake out the political middle as her turf.
“Tonight, the political extremes have chosen,” Johnson said. “Tina Kotek is more Kate Brown than Kate Brown and Christine Drazan wants to take away a woman’s right to choose.”
Unlike Drazan, Johnson is pro-choice on abortion.
Barton reiterated her opposition to abortion, but said it wouldn’t stop her from actively campaigning for Johnson.
On the night of the primary, Drazan lump Johnson and Kotek together as political successors to Brown.
“If you are happy with the way things are going in Oregon, you have two candidates to pick from in Betsy Johnson and Tina Kotek,” Drazan said. “Either one will give you a third term of Kate Brown’s policies.”
Kotek has lumped Johnson and Drazan together as representing attempts to reverse the state’s progressive accomplishments.
“People need to understand there are two conservatives who are going to be running against me in November,” Kotek said on the primary election night. “They want to take us backwards, I want to move our state forward.”
Among candidates for governor, Johnson has the largest amount of cash on hand — just under $5.2 million as of Tuesday.
Both Kotek and Drazan faced sometimes bruising primaries against well-financed opponents.
Drazan has $310,000 in the bank of the $2,5 million she had raised this year alone.
Kotek also went all-in on the primary, spending $2.36 million and reporting just $118,238.
Now that they have won the major party nominations, Kotek and Drazan will likely see their coffers refilled. After the primary votes are counted, national and state party groups and political action committees that stayed on the sidelines invest in the general election races.
Barton has connections that could be helpful to Johnson’s effort.
Barton’s biggest backer was Robert Freres Jr., owner of Freres Lumber in Lyons. He contributed $150,000 in his own name to Barton’s campaign, while his lumber company gave $100,000.
Barton is a principal in Oregon Pathfinder, an online publication that grew out of the former print magazine, Brainstorm NW.
Barton’s business partner at Third Century Solutions is Jim Pasero. He’s the director of Action PAC, a political action committee that has been primarily funded by Portland industrialist Henry Swigert.