2018 Oregon General Election Could Be Dark and Spicy

 Oregon has prided itself on polite politics and transparent campaign finance. But that reputation could be tested in this election cycle with bruising political battles and a rise of dark money financing for ballot measures.

Oregon has prided itself on polite politics and transparent campaign finance. But that reputation could be tested in this election cycle with bruising political battles and a rise of dark money financing for ballot measures.

Oregon has a reputation for polite, transparent politics. That reputation may change in this election cycle because of “hardball tactics” by Priority Oregon, a pro-business organization committed to challenging the hegemony of Democrats in the state.

Formed a year ago, Priority Oregon entered the political field by opposing efforts by legislators in 2017 to craft a gross receipts tax that would have assessed businesses on sales versus profits. Now it is spearheading four initiatives that take aim at unions, state spending and legislative approval of tax increases.

OPB’s Jeff Mapes has reported business lobbyists describing Priority Oregon as “designed to take a more hard-nosed approach to politics, unencumbered by the mainstream business community’s need to maintain ties to the Democrats who largely run state government.” Priority Oregon’s task is apparently not to make nice with Democrats.

So far, Priority Oregon also isn’t making it clear who is funding its political activities. In his story, Mapes said, “While sharpening its rhetoric, the group seems to be protecting its backers from any blowback.”

So-called dark money is no stranger to politics, but isn’t common in Oregon, where public disclosure is the rule and the routine practice. Erica Hetfeld, who is heading Priority Oregon, has promised the group will be more visible this election cycle, but not necessarily more transparent. Priority Oregon was established as a nonprofit 501(c)(4) entity that is allowed to engage in public activities without the same disclosure requirements as a political action committee.

Financial disclosure forms filed with the Elections Division indicate the Oregon Farm Bureau, Associated Oregon Loggers and Automobile Dealers Association of Portland have contributed to political action committees aligned with Priority Oregon-backed ballot measures, which are collecting signatures. Initiative backers must turn in the required number of signatures by July 6 to qualify for the November Oregon general election ballot.

Political Action Committees supporting Initiative Petition 31, which would require legislative supermajorities for any state tax revenue increases, and several other petitions (IP 34, 36 and 33), have collectively spent $146,000 during this election cycle with Ballot Access, LLC to collect signatures, according to state records.

Initiative Petition 34, which would make Oregon a right-to-work state, seems relatively quiet awaiting a ruling by the US Supreme Court in the matter of Janus v. AFSCME. The court heard arguments February 26 on the potentially precedent-splintering case. If that decision results in a victory for Union supporters, you can expect fundraising and advocacy to increase.

Initiative Petition 36 would create a state government spending limit and require excess revenue to reduce the Public Employees Retirement System unfunded liability. 

Another major effort expected on the ballot in November, Initiative Petition 37 would ban a tax on groceries.  IP 37, as you might imagine, has attracted substantial financial support from major grocers like Costco and Albertsons-Safeway. In addition, it's spent over $300,000 for petition signature gatherers and management support from conservative firm Morning in America since December of 2017.

More rough-and-tumble politics also is expected in the gubernatorial race. Democratic Governor Kate Brown is running for a full 4-year term and may face Republican Knute Buehler who has positioned himself as a politically moderate alternative. Like a running back on a bad football team, Buehler’s biggest challenge may be getting past the line of scrimmage in the GOP primary that often is dominated by more conservative voters. While Buehler has raised more campaign funds than his conservative fellow candidates, their views may be more in line with current thinking within the Republican Party.

There is an interesting twist to Buehler’s campaign. Rebecca Tweed, his campaign manager, also runs Grow Oregon, which major business leaders created in 2012 to counter the success of Our Oregon, a union-backed political group that advocates for tax hikes in the name of economic and social fairness. Grow Oregon and Our Oregon are both nonprofits, not PACs. Before leaving for Priority Oregon, Hetfeld was director of Grow Oregon.

It is a recipe for a ripe family feud with plenty of money spread around to make a lot of noise. Toss in a few additional spicy ballot measures that are circulating for signatures and you could have one of the hottest elections in some time. Some of the measures in circulation include restoring legislative term limits, requiring publicly traded corporations to disclose their state taxes, requiring proof of citizenship to vote and repeal of Oregon’s sanctuary state law.