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Sen. Betsy Johnson's tour in rural Oregon prompts questions about Democrat's plans for state office

Betsy Johnson.Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, is in the midst of a tour of rural Oregon that is fueling speculation she might be considering a run for governor in 2016.

Johnson said she wanted to reconnect with rural Oregonians, after several months “in a bubble” during the legislative session. Johnson’s husband, John Helm, owns an airplane and the couple started their journey Monday, Aug. 10, with a visit to Ontario. They next stopped in Burns and several cities in central Oregon, and they planned to visit Pendleton and La Grande later in the week. This week, Johnson planned to travel to Coos Bay, Newport and Corvallis with future stops to be determined.

The trip is separate from a series of meetings Johnson held to debrief constituents in her own northwest Oregon district on the legislative session earlier this summer.

“I had not experienced as much urban-rural divide, nor partisan divide, as I had at the end of this [legislative] session,” Johnson said.

Given those comments, perhaps it’s not surprising Johnson’s trip is generating buzz in Salem that the moderate Democrat is considering running for governor as a member of the Independent Party. Johnson voted with Republicans on some of the more contentious issues in the Legislature this year, including legislation to make the state’s low-carbon fuel standard permanent and expand gun background checks to all transfers other than between family members.

The secretary of state’s office announced Monday, Aug. 17, that the Independent Party qualifies for major-party status. That means the party — which has previously nominated candidates via online voting — will be eligible to participate in next May’s state-run primary election, alongside the Democratic and Republican parties.

Candidates who want to run as Independents in the May primary will have to register with the party by Sept. 10.

Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat, has not announced whether she will seek election in 2016 to the remaining two years of former Gov. John Kitzhaber’s term. Brown took office in February, after Kitzhaber resigned amid an influence peddling scandal. However, Brown is widely believed to be considering a run for the position and The Oregonian reported in July that Brown hired a national Democratic campaign adviser. Rep. Knute Buehler, R-Bend, announced in July that he was considering a run for governor.

Johnson did not rule out a run for statewide office, but said she is paying for the trip herself. Johnson confirmed she hired a staffer to help with communications during the trip.

“I just don’t want anybody to think there’s any campaign money, any public money [involved],” Johnson said. “This is Betsy money. Right now all I’m doing is finding out what is Oregon thinking right now. I spent five-and-a-half months in a bubble.”

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