Political money: 'It gets you in the game,' but doesn't win it
Money is important in politics — but it's not everything.
Consider these Oregon examples from this year's election.
Phil Knight gave $3.75 million to Betsy Johnson, $1.5 million to Christine Drazan, and $2 million to a Republican effort to end the decade-long Democratic majorities in the Oregon Legislature.
But what did the co-founder of Nike get for his contributions? Neither Johnson nor Drazan was elected governor — Democrat Tina Kotek was — and Republicans won neither the House nor Senate. (Pending final results this week, Republicans apparently will succeed in ending Democrats' 60% majorities, which are required for approval of revenue-raising measures.)
Carrick Flynn of McMinnville was unknown last spring when his Democratic primary campaign for Oregon's new 6th District seat in the U.S. House benefited from nearly $11 million in independent spending by an out-of-state organization. His campaign did not get the money directly.
But Flynn, who was making his first bid for public office, finished a distant second to Andrea Salinas in the nine-candidate primary field. Salinas, a three-term state representative from Lake Oswego, was on the verge of winning the House seat in last week's election, though her race against Republican Mike Erickson had not been called.
The out-of-state group was Protect Our Care, affiliated with Sam Bankman-Fried, who led the cryptocurrency exchange FTX until he resigned and it filed for bankruptcy last week.
The two situations fall under differing state and federal laws. Oregon has no limits on contributions or spending. Federal laws limit contributions by individuals and political action committees, but the advent of super PACs and social-welfare organizations — which do not have to disclose donors — after a 2010 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court has opened the way to a flood of money in congressional and presidential races.
"Money gets you into the game," said Jim Moore, who teaches politics at Pacific University and is director of public outreach at the Tom McCall Center for Civic Engagement. "But it doesn't necessarily win you the game."
Moore said money is the price of admission, and the amount varies depending on the race.
"If you do not have it, you are not a credible candidate, because you simply cannot knock on enough doors by yourself — you have to reach out to other people," he said.
"But once you get to a certain threshold, it does not make that much difference, in contrast to your message, who you are as a person, the way the political wind is blowing in an election year, and other things."
Important, but not everything
Two others who teach political science at Oregon State University agree.
David Bernell quoted Mark Hanna, the Ohio Republican senator who helped put William McKinley in the White House in two elections at the end of the 19th century and start of the 20th century. "There are two things that are important in politics," Hanna said. "The first is money — and I can't remember what the second one is."
Bernell: "Money has a huge role in terms of determining who is even going to be a candidate in the first place and selecting the pool of candidates for us to choose from. But campaigns and candidates actually matter."
Judy Stiegler knows that from experience. She was a Democratic state representative from Bend who lost her seat after one term in 2010, when her Republican challenger raised more than she did.
"Money is not going to go away," said Stiegler, who teaches at the OSU-Cascades campus in Bend. "But it may not have the power that people think it does."
Especially in contests below the statewide level, she said, "The ground game is the biggest part of assuring some success in the process."
The "ground game" means canvassing likely voters and getting them to return their mail ballots. It's also important in statewide races.
While they contribute money disproportionately to Democrats — as business groups do to Republicans — labor unions and other interest groups also provide the volunteers that helped Kotek get elected governor. Before then in 2010, they did the same to ensure a record third-term victory of Democrat John Kitzhaber for governor against Republican Chris Dudley, who set a fundraising record at the time.
Restrictions: Is it time?
According to Oregon Elections Division records, Knight gave $400,000 to Dudley's campaign. Four years later, Knight gave $250,000 to Kitzhaber's fourth-term bid, after Kitzhaber called a 2012 special session of the Legislature to approve a tax break, which ensures that the headquarters of the sportswear giant stays in Oregon. (Knight ended his official role with Nike in 2016 after 52 years.)
Four years ago, Knight gave $2.5 million to Republican Knute Buehler in his losing bid against Democratic Gov. Kate Brown.
Knight also has given in the past to some Republican and Democratic lawmakers, some statewide ballot measure campaigns — including $150,000 to the losing effort in 2010 to block increased taxes on corporations and higher-income earners — and some members of the Beaverton City Council. (Nike headquarters is outside the city limits, but it does have operations within the city.)
Oregon is one of five states with no limits on campaign contributions or spending.
The 1973 Legislature imposed spending limits, but the Supreme Court struck those down in 1975 as a violation of the state constitutional guarantee of free expression. Oregon voters approved contribution limits in a 1994 ballot measure. The limits were in effect during the 1996 election, but the Supreme Court struck them down in 1997.
A different set of justices on the Supreme Court upheld Multnomah County's limits in 2020, just ahead of voter approval of a constitutional change exempting campaign finance regulation from the free-expression guarantee. But legislation failed to come to a vote of either chamber in the 2021 session.
Nathalie Paravicini withdrew Sept. 2 as the nominee of the Progressive and Pacific Green parties after Kotek pledged to support campaign finance changes.
Kotek had Knight in mind, though she didn't single him out, when she spoke last week at her first public appearance following her election as governor.
"This race this year really shows the influence of big money in politics, particularly the contributions of one billionaire here in our state. We must have limits, and I look forward to working with advocates," she said in response to a question.
"I was the only candidate in this race who had clear details of what I'd like to see on contribution limits. I will be supporting the Legislature in getting that done next year. If not, I will support efforts to go to the ballot."
Stiegler of OSU-Cascades said she's skeptical about the Legislature doing it, given its record of inaction.
"I do not see that the efforts to get some kind of campaign finance restrictions are going to go away," she said. "But I do not know if they are going to be successful. In this state, part of the expression of freedom is being able to spend as much money or give as much money as possible."
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