A Tiny “Donor Class” Funds Oregon Elections

PORTLAND, Ore. – As Oregon state legislators consider a package of bills to limit the influence of money in politics, a new report released today by a nonpartisan research organization shows that megadonors and Portland’s “donor class” have an outsized impact on Oregon elections.

MapLight examined cash contributions to candidates in Oregon state elections in 2018 and found that the lack of contribution limits in statewide elections created an inequitable system that allowed wealthy individuals and special interests to have disproportionate influence on politics.

The analysis showed that in the 2018 elections, 60 percent of contributions to statewide candidates from individual donors came from just 20 ZIP codes, which represent less than 15 percent of the state’s population. Twelve of the top 20 ZIP codes are in the Portland metropolitan area.

“Candidates likely spend time cultivating these donors at the expense of connecting with the state’s grassroots base,” the report states.

MapLight also found that in the 2018 elections, there were 20 times as many small donors as large donors, but their financial impact was limited. The analysis showed:

  • 421 large donors (more than $5,000) donated $10.4 million to candidates
  • 6,521 medium donors donated $6.7 million to candidates
  • 8,429 small donors ($250 or less) donated $1.2 million to candidates

Within that group of large donors, the analysis found an even narrower pool of “megadonors,” individuals who gave more than $100,000 to candidates. Cumulatively the top 14 megadonors gave $4.7 million or 25 percent of all money raised from individuals and most of it went to record-spending in the governor’s races.

“[T]he involvement of megadonors (including some playing both sides) suggests that wealthy individuals seek undue influence in key Oregon elections,” the report said.

The analysis comes as the Oregon state legislature begins to actively consider a package of bills to limit big money’s influence in politics. Last week, the House passed three bills (HB2714, HB2716, HB2983), and the Senate Rules Committee held a first hearing on a fourth bill (SJR18).

The heart of the package is the senate bill, a referral to the voters to amend the state constitution to clearly authorize campaign finance reform. Without this, the state will not enact limits or stronger transparency requirements, due to a 1997 attorney general opinion that the state does not have the constitutional authority.

“If legislators do nothing else,” said Kate Titus, executive director of Common Cause Oregon, “they should refer the constitutional issue to voters so that we can allow campaign finance reform.”

Beyond that, legislators are considering several bills supported by Common Cause Oregon and MapLight which would put a first set of campaign finance rules in place.

  • House Bill 2714 would set the initial limits, clarifying how and how much individuals, political parties and PACs can contribute to candidates.
  • House Bill 2716 would require political advertisements to list the top donors funding the ads.
  • House Bill 2983 would require nonprofit entities that spend sizable amounts of money to influence elections to disclose the donors funding that spending.

“Policies that limit the disproportionate influence of wealth in politics and encourage diverse, grassroots small donor participation can help to make local democracies more reflective of and responsive to the people,” the MapLight report states.

Common Cause and MapLight back an additional reform, House Bill 3004, which would establish a small donor elections system for state Senate and House seats, incentivizing candidates to run for office without any big money support. In exchange for accepting no more than $250 from anyone, the small contributions they receive from their own constituents would then be matched 6-to1.

States like Maine and Connecticut, and many local jurisdictions – including Seattle and Portland – already use some public funding to strengthen the voice of voters over big donors. Small donor election systems work by using public matching funds to make the small contributions of constituents matter as much as the big contributions of the wealthiest donors and special interests.

“The current proposed campaign contribution limits are useful to prevent the really large contributions, the outliers, but what they won’t do is fundamentally change the way campaigns are financed,” Titus said. “Until we pass a small donor election system, candidates will continue to look for support from a tiny donor class that is not representative of most Oregonians.”

“Small donor elections would be the real game changer,” said Titus.

Read the report here.