Supporters of the top three candidates in the Oregon governor’s race spent more than $70 million trying to help their favorite candidate win, an increase of roughly 89% from the previous governor’s race.
Governor-elect Tina Kotek, a Democrat, far outraised her Republican and unaffiliated rivals: Donors pumped $30.1 million directly into Kotek’s campaign over the last 23 months and the former state House speaker spent nearly all of it.
Republican Christine Drazan, the former House GOP leader, was a distant second in the money race, at $22.6 million raised and $22.5 million spent.
Unaffiliated candidate Betsy Johnson, a former longtime Democratic state lawmaker, raised $17.5 million and spent $17.8 million.
Altogether, Kotek, Drazan and Johnson spent $70.3 million since January 2021, according to reports filed with the Oregon Secretary of State though Tuesday morning.
In addition, Kotek appears to be the overwhelming beneficiary of independent expenditures in the race. Political action committees largely funded by public employee unions and the Democratic Governors Association spent more than $940,000 on ads that cast Kotek in a positive light and attacked Johnson and Drazan, The Oregonian/OregonLive’s analysis of state campaign finance records shows.
In contrast, various political action committees including Oregon Right to Life appear to have spent only about $28,000 in independent expenditures aimed at helping Drazan and attacking Kotek, records show.
Under Oregon law, independent expenditures cannot be coordinated with a candidate’s campaign. Two of the political action committees that spent heavily to attack Drazan and Johnson, Oregonians for Ethics and Hold Politicians Accountable, also donated more than $600,000 worth of coordinated political advertising to Kotek’s campaign, which the state calls “in-kind contributions.”
Kotek’s largest single donor was the Democratic Governors Association at $6.7 million, followed by various local, state and federal units of the Service Employees International Union with a combined total of $3.1 million in direct contributions to Kotek’s campaign.
In an emailed statement, Service Employees International Union Local 503 executive director Melissa Unger said the union invested heavily in trying to get Kotek elected — and defeating Johnson and Drazan — because “Tina Kotek was the only pro-worker candidate for Oregon governor.”
“Governor-elect Kotek has a track record of delivering for working families through raising the minimum wage, making historic investments in home care, expanding access to health care, protecting worker rights, and addressing climate change,” Unger said. “Her solidarity with workers extends beyond her accomplishments at the Legislature. She shows up for workers on the picket line and at the bargaining table. Tina believes that working people need a voice and need a union.”
Oregon’s governor negotiates labor agreements with the unions that represent state workers, although the pot of money available to pay for raises, health insurance and other benefits is set by state lawmakers.
For advocates of campaign finance reform, the staggering amount spent in the governor’s race is more evidence of the pressing need for the state to set limits. Oregon is one of five states that currently allows unlimited political donations.
“Did doubling the 2022 Oregon governor’s race spending help voters twice as much? Did we get doubled access to figure out who cared more about our issues? I don’t think so,” said Rebecca Gladstone, president of the League of Women Voters of Oregon. Gladstone, who is a chief petitioner on a proposed 2024 ballot initiatives to cap campaign contributions, said the League of Women Voters of Oregon “stands even more firmly” by its work to “limit campaign contributions and know where that money really comes from.”
Gladstone and other good government advocates tried to get initiatives on the ballot this November that would have allowed voters to decide whether to limit campaign contributions. But Secretary of State Shemia Fagan, a Democrat, ruled in February that the proposals could not be placed on the ballot because they did not include the entire text of the state laws they would amend.
“Each election, spending rises exponentially,” said Kate Titus, executive director of Common Cause Oregon, another good government group that supports contribution limits. “It will continue to do so until we demand otherwise. We know what tools help rein in the corrupting influence of money in politics — a combination of limits, transparency, and matching funds to make small dollar campaigns viable. It’s time that Oregon lawmakers act to put this in place.”
Democrats, who have held most statewide elected offices and had majorities in the Legislature for a decade, have not made contribution limits a priority, including during Kotek’s time as House speaker. However, on the campaign trail this fall, Kotek said that as governor she will push for lawmakers to adopt limits and if they fail, she will support a ballot measure to set limits. In the past, Democrats’ contribution limit proposals have included loopholes to allow public employee unions to continue donating millions of dollars to a single candidate while ensuring that individual donors, such as Nike co-founder Phil Knight who tends to support Republicans, face strict limits.
Through a spokesperson, Kotek declined to comment regarding why it was necessary for her campaign to spend so much to achieve a 3.5-percentage point win and whether she has any concerns about the high cost of gubernatorial campaigns. In an October campaign event where Kotek announced she would prioritize some type of campaign finance reforms as governor, she focused on Knight’s role as a wealthy donor. “Just one guy, that’s what we’re up against here in this election,” Kotek said. If billionaires and special interests were not able to spend heavily, “this race would be very different.”
Oregon has contribution limits on the books that voters approved in 2006, but those limits were deemed unenforceable for years because courts ruled they violated the state’s free speech protections.
In 2020, the Oregon Supreme Court reversed precedent and ruled that contribution limits are allowed under the state Constitution. But Democratic Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum determined the 2006 voter-approved limits are still unenforceable. Rosenblum, whose staff delivered the legal opinion verbally rather than in writing to the secretary of state, has refused to explain why she believes this.
Kotek’s other top donors included the Democratic Party of Oregon, the Oregon League of Conservation Voters and Stand for Children Oregon, a nonprofit focused on educational equity.
Drazan’s top donors included the Republican Governors Association which spent $7.2 million on her campaign, followed by Knight with $1.5 million and the Oregon Republican Party with $972,000. The Swanson Group, which owns timber mills in Oregon, gave $600,000 to Drazan’s campaign and the Oregon Realtors political action committee spent $584,000 on trying to get Drazan elected.
Johnson’s fundraising shows how her presence in the race undercut Drazan’s ability to tap political donors who are usually stalwart supporters of Republican candidates. Knight gave Johnson $3.75 million, before switching his allegiance to Drazan in the fall after polls showed voters’ support for Johnson was slipping. The Papé Group heavy machinery dealers spent more than $1 million on Johnson’s campaign and Columbia Sportswear CEO Tim Boyle gave $789,000. California-based Sierra Pacific Industries, one of the nation’s largest lumber producers, donated more than $500,000 to Johnson’s campaign and marine services company Sause Bros. gave Johnson $400,000.
Between the campaigns’ direct spending and independent expenditures for and against candidates, campaigns and political action committees spent roughly $34 for each vote Kotek snagged, $27 for each vote that Drazan received and $107 for each vote Johnson got.
— Hillary Borrud; firstname.lastname@example.org; @hborrud