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Oregon Elections: Large Donors Outspent Small by 14 Times

Large donors contributed 14 times as much as small donors to Oregon candidates and ballot measure campaigns in 2016. (Cacophony/Wikimedia Commons)
Large donors contributed 14 times as much as small donors to Oregon candidates and ballot measure campaigns in 2016. (Cacophony/Wikimedia Commons)
February 2, 2018

PORTLAND, Ore. – Big money dominated the 2016 elections in Oregon, according to a new report.

The Oregon State Public Interest Research Group or "OSPIRG" found about 720 individuals and businesses, contributing $5,000 or more, collectively donated nearly $35 million to candidates and ballot measure campaigns. In contrast, more than 31,000 people who gave $250 or less donated $2.5 million.

That means large donors outspent their smaller counterparts 14-to-1. State Representative Diego Hernandez, D-Portland, says he has experienced the effect large donors have on elections. He says when he decided to run, he thought he could focus on the issues and voters.

"But it turned out that a lot of my time had to be spent also fundraising, which is time taken away from having to go door-to-door, talking to constituents,” says Hernandez. “And so, it definitely is something that impacts the election process."

The report also found large, out-of-state donors outspent small, in-state donors 10-to-1. Hernandez says these imbalances end up hurting candidates of color and women who run for office, since they typically don't have a network of wealthy donors at their disposal.

Khanh Le was the financial director for Thuy Tran, a candidate for a House seat from east Portland who lost in 2012. Le says the district is diverse, with immigrants and refugees who were engaged in her campaign but unable to contribute large donations. He says Tran also had to juggle being a small business owner.

"Frankly, she didn't have much time in terms of raising money, running her business so she has an income, so she can live, and then outreach to her voters,” says Le. “So, she had to choose."

Charlie Fisher, state director of OSPIRG, says House Bill 4076 could help candidates like Tran and also empower small donors. The bill would provide a 6-to-1 matching program for candidates who agree only to accept contributions of $250 or less. Fisher says the program has worked in other places.

"The City of New York has had a small donor matching program for a while now,” he says, “and it demonstrably increased the diversity of donors giving to candidates running for city office, compared to candidates running without matching funds for statewide office."

H-B 4076 is scheduled for a hearing Thursday, Feb. 8.

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - OR