Over the top: Oregon’s $10 million State Senate election

“There are two things that are important in politics,” U.S. Senator Mark Hanna said in 1895. “The first is money and I can’t remember what the second one is.”

Candidates for Oregon’s state Senate showed the truth in that observation in their 2014 races, which led to campaign spending of $10 million. That’s right, $10 million to decide the winners of just 16 Senate seats in a state with a smaller population than Kentucky.

Oregon Senate

Oregon Senate

That’s $10 million, enough to cover the annual tuition and fees of 1026 students at the University of Oregon.

But wait. There’s more. Candidates in 3 of those 16 races ran unopposed and candidates in 7 others were in such uncompetitive races that the victor won by more than 15%. That leaves just 6 seats with real races.

Here are the 6, with the expenditures by each candidate and the winning margins:

Screen Shot 2014-11-22 at 5.42.14 PM

Of the 6 competitive races, the Democrats won 4 and the Republicans 2, giving the Democrats more solid control of the Senate.

Based on filings with the Oregon Secretary of State, the committees of all the candidates for the 16 Senate seats spent a combined total of $7,816,657.33 in the primary and the general elections.

The most expensive race in terms of candidate committee spending expenditures was the one between Bruce Starr and Chuck Riley with total expenditures of $1,794,346.39. That made it the most expensive State Senate race in Oregon history.

Bruce Starr (L) and Chuck Riley

Bruce Starr (L) and Chuck Riley

On top of these candidate committee expenditures, the Senate Republican and Democratic Party Leadership Funds spent a bundle.

Figuring out how much they spent beyond the spending of the candidate committees gets a little tricky here. That’s because some of the money spent by the Senate Leadership Funds came from contributions by candidate committees. These contributions also show up as expenditures by the candidate committees, so counting them also as expenditures by the Leadership Funds would be double counting. Therefore, in order to accurately figure out additional spending by the Leadership Funds you have to subtract the money they received from the candidate committees. Got it?

In the case of the Senate Democratic Leadership Fund, the contributions it received beyond donations from the candidate committees include $50,000 from Everytown for Gun Safety (former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s operation), $100,000 from the Democratic Leadership Campaign Committee (A Washington, D.C.-based group that works to win state legislative seats and chambers for Democrats), and $50,000 from the Oregon Priorities PAC.

Michael Bloomberg

Michael Bloomberg

After the election, Everytown for Gun Safety, which also contributed $75,000 to the successful State Senate campaign of Chuck Riley-D and $250,000 to Gov. Kitzhaber, boasted of its campaign influence. “…the election of Rep. Sara Gelser (who received $186,014.40 from the Senate Democratic Leadership Fund) to the state Senate signals a pro-background check majority in 2015, which clears the most significant roadblock in Everytown for Gun Safety’s work over the past two years to pass a background check bill there,” Everytown said.

The extra expenditures by the Senate Democratic Leadership Fund, beyond contributions it received from candidate committees, totaled $1,140,387.53.

In the case of The Leadership Fund for Senate Republicans, major contributions, beyond donations from the committees of the candidates running in 2014, included $15,000 from the Oregon Sportsmens Association PAC, $45,000 from the Oregon Family Farm Association PAC, $25,000 from the Taxpayers Association of Oregon PAC and $20,000 from the Pacific Seafood Group Employee PAC.

The Republican Leadership Fund, just like the Democratic Leadership Fund, also received substantial sums from current state senators not running in 2014. Friends of Ted Ferrioli, for example, raised $305,298.28 in 2014, then turned around and donated $213,500 of that to the Republican Leadership Fund.

Using the same formula as with the Senate Democratic Leadership Fund, the extra expenditures by The Leadership Fund for Senate Republicans totaled $1,222,851.

Add it all up and you have $10,179,985.80.

And that doesn’t even count money spent by other groups in support of Senate candidates, including some so-called dark money which will never be disclosed.

Clearly, Oregon is headed for the big time. The question: what are the big contributors going to expect as a return on their investments?

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