Campaign cash in Oregon: Will GOP candidates outspend Democrats?
U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., took the stage at Oaks Park in Portland on Labor Day before a large contingent of enthusiastic Democrats. In outlining the challenge ahead, he told the crowd, "Every one of our candidates will be outspent" this election.
His remarks, delivered in such a blue state as Oregon, caught PolitiFact Oregon's attention. We aren't putting them to the Truth-O-Meter, because one of our hallmarks is that we don't evaluate predictions.
However, Wyden's comment shines a bright light on the role campaign finance is playing in this election. So we contacted a number of campaigns and campaign finance experts and asked if it's possible that "every" Democratic candidate will be outspent.
"He may have been caught up in the enthusiasm of the moment," said Michael J. Malbin, a political science professor at the State University of New York at Albany. "Obviously, you allow for a little bit of Labor Day hyperbole."
Regardless of party, Malbin said, the key to winning the fundraising battle is the power of incumbency. In most races, he said, incumbents are going to far outstrip challengers.
Records filed with the Federal Elections Commission bear that out.
Nationally, only one challenger is among the top 10 when it comes to top fundraisers for U.S. House of Representatives' seats, according to records covering Jan. 1, 2013, to March 31, 2014.
And even in that race, challenger Andrew Romanoff, a Colorado Democrat, trails the Republican incumbent, Michael Coffman, in total funds raised.
In U.S. Senate races, only two challengers make the top 10 list. As in Romanoff's House race, both Senate challengers – David Alameel in Texas and Alison Lundergan Grimes of Kentucky -- are behind the incumbents they are hoping to topple, John Cornyn and Mitch McConnell, respectively.
Where incumbents are finding financial toeholds, Malbin said, is in races deemed competitive. The minute that call is made – as in Oregon Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley's race against Republican challenger Monica Wehby – vast amounts of cash are dropped by outside groups.
And so far, he added, conservative-leaning groups are outspending their Democratic counterparts by about $70 billion to $50 billion.
"That's where Wyden is fairly accurate in his statement," Malbin said. "It's not like his party doesn't have any money at all, but it certainly has access to less of it."
Oregon's congressional races, with two months to go before the general election, are mostly following the incumbent-wins-the-money model, according to recent financial filings.
If current fundraising trends hold up, all four Democratic House incumbents will far outspend their Republican challengers. Only in Oregon's 4th Congressional District is Republican challenger Art Robinson even in the ballpark with his opponent, Democratic incumbent Peter DeFazio.
On the Senate side, the Merkley-Wehby race could upend that model. Although Merkley currently enjoys a sizable edge over Wehby in campaign-related fundraising, Wehby is the recent beneficiary of a multimillion-dollar ad campaign run by Freedom Partners, the political arm of the billionaire industrialist Koch brothers.
Campaign law prohibits contact between Wehby's campaign and Freedom Partners, but a final accounting may still show more contributions to her effort than Merkley's.
"That's going to be a pretty close call," said Bill Lunch, an Oregon political analyst. "In every other national or state race? Not even close."
Wyden spokesman Hank Stern said this week that Wyden was thinking of the Merkley race -- and the infusion of Koch brothers cash -- when he made the comment.
Is the rush of outside money enough to overcome an incumbent's fundraising advantage? Jim Moore, a Pacific University political science professor, isn't sure.
"But what we do know," he said, "is that it certainly is changing the landscape of how and where candidates and campaign money relate to each other."