02 Nov

Election spending suggests new Oregon motto: “Billionaire’s Playground”

Just when it seemed the 2014 campaign in Oregon had reached its peak of excitement, last week brought the largest political contribution in state history, when the agribusiness company Dupont Pioneer of Iowa cut a $4.6 million check to the campaign against GMO-labeling Measure 92.

With no possible involvement by Cylvia Hayes.

In Oregon politics, this has been the year of big checks, mostly drawn on out-of-state accounts. One of the license plates the state offers proclaims Oregon a “Pacific Wonderland;” maybe we should have one that reads “Billionaire’s Playground.”

We may not be attracting as many jobs as we’d like, but we’re having no problem attracting money.
The special deliveries started, of course, with $3 million laid out by the political action committee run by the Koch brothers for TV ads in August against Sen. Jeff Merkley. This is, of course, entirely legal – and five members of the U.S. Supreme Court regard it as the height of citizenship and democracy – but it did raise questions about two billionaire brothers from Kansas running ads that referred to the population of Oregon as “we.”

With so many states obsessed with voter I.D., maybe we should consider the question of advertiser I.D. – at least for grammatical purposes.

Two other out-of-state billionaires have been absorbed by the fight over Measure 90, creating a “top-two” primary that could run outside party Iines. Michael Bloomberg, former mayor of New York, sent in $1.25 million in support, and John Arnold of Texas sent in $1.5 million, writing in The Oregonian Sunday that he thought it could ease partisanship and spread around the country.

I have, unfortunately, no personal experience with the thought processes of billionaires, and it’s true that Bloomberg in particular has so much money that for him sending $1.25 million – plus the $400,000 he just added – is like sending a postcard. But it seems a lot to spend on the details of another state’s electoral structure, especially when you could take that money and have three dinners in Paris.

Another billionaire with an unfamiliar zip code, environmentalist John Steyer of California, is taking an even deeper interest in Oregon, spending heavily to try to defeat two Republican state senators, Bruce Starr of Hillsboro and Betsy Close of Albany. We don’t know exactly how much Steyer is sending us, but it’s reportedly less than the $1 million he’s spending to help Democrats win the Washington state Senate.

As The Oregonian’s Jeff Mapes reported over the weekend, Oregon’s allure has now drawn additional distant billionaires. Paul Singer of New York, seeking to support pro-gay rights Republicans, is spending $100,000 for ads for Senate candidate Monica Wehby. And Robert Mercer of New York, who previously financed two campaigns by Art Robinson against Rep. Peter DeFazio, has given another $1 million to a PAC supporting Robinson’s race this year.

No word on whether Mercer sent Robinson a urine sample, which the candidate has also been collecting this year.

Oregon’s elections have even drawn big bucks from deceased billionaires, and you can’t get more out-of-state than that. New Approach PAC, funded by the heirs of Peter Lewis of Ohio, sent another $300,000 to support marijuana-legalizing Measure 91, bringing its total contribution to $1.25 million.

The billionaires’ bounty matches this year’s wave of corporate cash, marked by Dupont Pioneer’s recent $4.6 million burst. That single check exceeds the $4.5 million cumulative total from Monsanto in the GMO contest, and the hardly-worth-mentioning $1 million apiece from Coca Cola and Pepsi, brought together in the anti-labeling trenches.

Not only has the nature of politics in Oregon changed dramatically, but the price tags are getting unrecognizable. In recent years, Oregon corporations and unions, and some individuals, might preen themselves on being major players with a $50,000, $100,000 or even $200,000 contribution. But major national contributors – or rather, investors – are shooting far past those levels, and redesigning the parameters of Oregon politics.

There are no state or federal laws – and perhaps none that a Supreme Court majority would leave standing – to prevent an outside contributor from dropping $4.6 million into a governor’s race in its last couple of weeks. Oregon is cute, and in TV terms relatively inexpensive, and a contributor – or corporate spokesman – could explain that while he’s never actually been here, it’s a good place to send a message to the rest of the country.

To really explain an Oregon political year, we now need something more than a Voter’s Pamphlet.

Maybe the secretary of state should put out a Buyer’s Guide.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Oregonian, 10/29/14.

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