Some have criticized Measure 90 because it might increase campaign spending. Common Cause Oregon has long advocated for campaign finance reform. Our focus, however, has been more on the size and source of contributions than overall spending since we realize that candidates do need money to get out a campaign message. This is why organizational analysis of election competitiveness (see article five) has pointed out that many races may look contested with two or more candidates, but are not genuinely competitive because of significant disparities in fundraising. Lower campaign spending due to lack of genuine competition is not a positive feature of our current system.
Campaign spending and the open primary
Currently, Republican primary election campaigns are just directed to Republican voter registrants while Democratic voters are the sole target of candidates running in Democratic partisan primaries. Frequently partisan elections are not competitive, especially when an incumbent is running again, so primary spending is often much less than the levels seen in general elections.
Under Measure 90, campaign spending in primary elections may well increase because all candidates would appear on the same ballot and all registered voters could participate. More spending seems possible because it takes more money to get a message out to more voters. Some critics have complained that open primary elections would be more expensive like general elections. The catch is that frequently the same critics also say that Measure 90 won’t increase primary election turnout so it is disingenuous to simultaneously make these contradictory complaints.
The bottom line consideration is whether or not more money spent to communicate with more eligible voters to distinguish between candidates in a larger open primary field is a bad thing or a good thing?
Campaign spending in top-two general elections
Currently, most general elections already have only two candidates, the number that would always be on the November ballot due to Measure 90. And, unless a major party doesn’t field a primary candidate, most general elections right now have a Republican candidate and a Democratic candidate. If a non-affiliated or minor party candidate is also on a current general election ballot, campaign spending typically doesn’t increase much if at all.
Not all November elections are alike, however, so current general election campaign spending levels fall into two categories. Category one includes low dollar campaigns in uncompetitive districts, especially those significantly dominated by one major political party. Category two includes contests with high levels of campaign spending typically because of the competitiveness of a swing district.
Under Measure 90, general election campaign spending in competitive districts seems unlikely to change. Before Measure 90, races in competitive districts have typically been contests between Democratic and Republican candidates with fundraising capacity. This pattern seems likely to continue if Measure 90 is adopted. In competitive districts, the most viable Democratic and Republican candidates would probably get the most votes in an open primary and face each other in November. Such candidates would most likely have fundraising capacity and political players would likely make significant campaign contributions because of the competitiveness of the district.
But what about general election campaign spending under Measure 90 in uncompetitive districts or in districts where significant competition, if seen at all, has historically been in the partisan primary of the political party that dominates the district? In uncompetitive districts where the open primary still advances a Democrat and Republican to the November ballot, general election spending probably won’t be very high. In uncompetitive districts where the open primary advances either two Democrats or two Republicans to the November ballot, then the general election campaign spending picture might look different.
A general election with two candidates from the same major party could just look like a repeat of the primary with increased spending for the November election that seems unnecessary to critics of Measure 90.
Supporters of Measure 90, however, point out that not all Republicans are alike just as there are differences between Democrats. This could mean that more general election campaign spending is required to differentiate between candidates from the same political party. For example, Democrats in Republican-dominated districts and Republicans in Democratic-dominated districts may be courted in these same-party campaigns on the basis of issues that differentiate between two general election candidates from the same party. If this possible result of Measure 90 seems feasible and is of interest to you, then an increase in general election campaign spending in these districts likely won’t be seen as a problem.