You need more than money to win an election in Oregon

Vast amounts of out-of-state campaign funds poured into Oregon in recent months, much of it aimed at congressional races

November 10, 2022 5:30 am

Millions were spent in Oregon trying to win races. (Getty Images)

Remember those news stories about the massive campaign contributions on behalf of nonaffiliated Oregon governor candidate Betsy Johnson? For months her campaign treasury outpaced all others; she was the beneficiary of many millions of dollars, including more than $3 million just from Nike co-founder Phil Knight.

As this is written on Wednesday morning, the Oregon governor’s contest isn’t settled yet – Democrat Tina Kotek is barely leading Republican Christine Drazan – but this much we know: Johnson isn’t in the hunt. With about half of the vote counted, she was pulling 8.8% of the vote. 

It turns out people still were willing to vote for Democrats and Republicans. 

When it comes to the question of whether backers of a minority group can simply buy their way to an election win over a stable political majority, the answer in Oregon seems to be: no.

We saw dramatic evidence of that this spring in the Democratic primary election in the 6th Congressional District, when candidate Carrick Flynn was backed with millions from a cryptocurrency billionaire; he came in a very distant second to a much less-funded competitor. 

Vast amounts of out-of-state campaign funds were dropped on Oregon in the last few months, much of it aimed at congressional races but with significant amounts filtering down to legislative seats. Generally, it seemed to change little. In almost all cases, the result you’d expect based on normal voting patterns held up in this year’s election. 

Democratic Senator Ron Wyden, whose re-election never seemed to be in doubt, was running at about 56% of the vote on Wednesday; he took 57% in each of his last two elections. 

U.S. House districts 1, 2 and 3, which are all very strong for their parties (blue, red and blue respectively) all voted according to norm. The other three districts are all more competitive and attracted large amounts of out of state funds, mainly on the Republican side. But House District 4 went decisively Democratic, while the other two remained closer on Wednesday. The heavy spending on advertising probably had some effect, but only at the edges (which might be enough to make the difference in District 5, where the Republican contender was leading).

In a column several weeks ago, I labeled the 16 Oregon state Senate seats up for election by probability of winning – lean, likely or safe, Democratic or Republican. All 16 went in the partisan direction I suggested, and the primary drivers in those choices concerned the usual partisan trend of the district, the nature of the candidate and – but definitely a lesser consideration – partisan spending. Looking at those races now, none seem to have been decided primarily by campaign funding. 

Consider Senate District 3, in the Medford area, a politically competitive region where Democrats have a small advantage. Incumbent Democrat Jeff Golden was outspent more than three to one by Republican Randy Sparacino; the results so far show Golden ahead, about where he logically might be if both candidates spent equally. 

Democrat Deb Patterson has an energetic contest in Salem-area Senate District 10; October finance reports showed her outspent two to one. She appears to be winning decisively. In Senate District 15 Democrat Janeen Sollman also was heavily outspent but seems to be winning by about the same margin as Patterson. 

Obviously, not all campaign finance leaders are losing; often, money flows to candidates who are thought to have a good chance of winning. But that usually means factors other than cash are critical. 

Republicans appear clearly to have flipped just one state Senate district: 16, the northwestern Astoria-St. Helens-Tillamook district which was represented until early this year by then-Democrat and now-non-aligned Betsy Johnson. There, Republican Suzanne Weber did outspend Democrat Melissa Busch, but changes in the district, the fact that Weber was an incumbent House member with a strong Tillamook base and her close relationship with Johnson probably were much bigger factors. 

(You might count District 6, in the eastern Linn County area, as a flip, but the boundaries of that district were so strongly changed that it is really a new, and much more Republican, district.)

Similarly, in the Columbia Gorge-area District 26, another open seat, Republican Daniel Bonham heavily outspent Democrat Raz Mason (though the contribution levels were not out of the norm for a legislative race), but Bonham appears to have won. The district has been held by a Republican for some years, and probably would stay that way unless the Democrat had an unusually strong campaign. 

An overall impression of Oregon politics on the morning after the election: The fundamentals have not drastically changed. 

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Randy Stapilus

Randy Stapilus has researched and written about Northwest politics and issues since 1976 for a long list of newspapers and other publications. A former newspaper reporter and editor, and more recently an author and book publisher, he lives in Carlton.