Ron Wyden is fond of saying, “follow the money.” When people say one thing in public, their trail of money often tells a different story.
Political campaign finance reporting is very often sloppy, incomplete, or obfuscated through interconnected networks of PACs and consultants, but it sure does tell a story.
Local giving is dominated by large donors
Talk to any Bend local long enough and inevitably they gripe about wealthy people who move here and change the “character” of the town. What’s remarkable about Bend’s politics is how few people of means give to local political candidates. At all.
Until 2020, you would be hard pressed to find many individuals listed as donors to city council races outside of certain stakeholders, like developers. Even now, there are roughly 150 individual donors to all city council races. Excluding the small donors who don’t give enough to be listed by name on financial reports, individuals raised just over $70,000 combined.
The Central Oregon Association of Realtors (COAR) alone has spent over $69,000 on just Chris Piper – so far.
Individual small donors to local candidates favor Democratic
candidates by roughly 2-to-1.
That ratio flips 2-to-1 favoring Republican candidates when you count big donors.
Individual donors giving under $100 (all local candidates)
Small donors make a small slice of the overall pie
Business groups dwarf all others and they still give almost exclusively to Republicans in the age of Trump
If you were to exclude money from realtors and PACs, incumbent city councilor Justin Livingston would have less than $4,000. Instead, he has raised nearly $100,000 – more than six times the amount spent by Barb Campbell to win a hotly contested race in 2018. Gena Goodman-Campbell similarly won a heated race in 2018 with just $21,000.
It used to be rare for a local race to cost more than $20,000. Now, thanks to just a few donors, local conservative candidates can often expect a warchest comparable to what is typically spent to run a state legislative race.
The Central Oregon Association of Realtors (COAR) is making no effort to hide their spending this year via their PAC. Their spending alone accounts for fully 74% of the money received by Livingston, 56% of Chris Piper‘s money, and a quarter of Michael Hughes‘ money.
Add in other real estate interests like the Central Oregon Small Business PAC (an arm of COBA, operated directly by Tim Knopp) and the Bend Chamber PAC and these candidates are spending big.
Notice the sharp jumps in line with giving from these key donors – and the relative flatness in between those jumps.
Money buys consultants, but not necessarily a win
You might think that these extreme imbalances make the election a foregone conclusion. It didn’t work that way for Sarah McCormick and Andrew Davis. The same handful of real estate and business interests propped up these two novice candidates for city council in 2018.
McCormick burned through nearly $90,000 losing to Barb Campbell’s more typical $14,000. Andrew Davis spent almost $85,000 to Gena Goodman Campbell’s $21,000.
What does all that money buy? Mostly advertising. Full color postal mailers can get pricey and broadcast advertising just isn’t worth the expense for most local candidates without the extra help like this.
[ Sort this spreadsheet by Purpose Codes for an idea of what is being bought ]
There’s also an ecosystem of consultants that has sprung up to take advantage of this spigot of money. Former Greg Walden press flack and one-time mayor of Bend, Jeff Eager, operates a string of campaign-related organizations out of his office, including Insite LGA.
Eager has earned the business of this coalition of monied interests for years now, despite his only significant contested win being the defeat of the ill-fated gas tax in 2016.
Now, his protege Jennifer Stephens has branched out to helping run Knute Buehler’s failed campaign, defending Cheri Helt’s questionable campaign tactics, and supporting Sheriff Shane Nelson’s campaign. Nelson also contracts with Hubbell Communications and former Bend 2030 director, Erin Foote Morgan.
Why spend so much?
There are a few likely reasons why the realtors and Chamber spend like this. For one, the people who make decisions matter. Look to who controls the PACs.
The Bend Chamber PAC is run by Troy Reinhart, who chaired the local GOP through its Tea Party/birther years. Another member of the PAC’s board is Jennifer Stephens.
The heads of the developer and realtor groups are both elected Republican state legislators and themselves the beneficiaries of much of this money. State Senator Tim Knopp (SD-27) manages daily operations for the Central Oregon Builders Association (COBA) as Executive Vice President. State Representative Jack Zika (HD-53) is President of COAR.
Going further on the realtor/developer side, Dennis Pahlisch – patriarch of Pahlisch Homes – is one of the key financiers. His daughter-in-law, Jonna Pahlisch, is now on the executive committee of the local Republican Party and one of the major antivax ringleaders in Central Oregon.
Another reason for this level of spending is the usual reason business gravitates toward conservative politics generally: opposition to taxes and regulation. Whether it’s the gas tax or climate policy, these groups are often opposed, though they have become more sophisticated in how they voice that opposition.
Finally, there is a sort of last-chance desperation. Money is only one piece of electioneering that we see. Networking, resume building, and more can also contribute to creating viable candidates. These groups have attempted that through campaign boot camps, mentoring, and a host of credential-burnishing photo ops. It still hasn’t been enough to compete with changing priorities among voters in Bend. So more and more money is spent to chase a win. Money is the one variable they can reliably control.
Bend is changing. The Democratic-endorsed slate for city council this year are all YIMBY advocates to some degree. They are not hostile to real estate or developer or business interests. Yet, these groups still fear that their bottom line may be affected. You can see it by how they spend their money.
Not all businesses join in this kind of political spending. Real estate and developer interests, along with a handful of the more active members of the Bend Chamber, are able to have this outsized influence because – just like individual donors – so many sit it out when it comes to local politics.
Local Democrats report difficulty – pre-covid, of course – finding venues for their events because so many local businesses who ostensibly support liberal values just don’t want to be seen as “political.” Extreme polarization driven by national politics certainly doesn’t help. As more locals become politically engaged, though, these attitudes may change and Bend may see a more liberal tilt to political giving in the future.
Want to follow the money yourself?
|1||Anthony Broadman||Broadman for Bend||D||BCC2||62,315.59||47,244.45||15,034.14|
|2||Phil Chang||Chang For Deschutes||D||DCC2||96,884.65||95,301.66||1,582.99|
|3||Cheri Helt||Cheri Helt for State Representative||R||HD54||1,099,643.96||1,098,077.66||30,150.05|
|4||Chris Piper||Chris Piper for Bend City Council||R||BCC3||127,990.03||128,403.32||-181.68|
|5||Shane Nelson||Committee to Elect L. Shane Nelson Sheriff||R||Sheriff||121,470.50||122,939.48||741.25|
|6||Eileen Kiely||Eileen Kiely for Oregon||D||SD27||715,022.06||689,670.67||31,283.95|
|7||Emerson Levy||Elect Emerson Levy for State Representative HD 53||D||HD53||93,367.82||75,640.98||1,307.57|
|8||Phil Henderson||Friends of Phil Henderson for Deschutes County Commissioner||R||DCC2||108,074.40||108,523.65||-27,477.31|
|9||Michael Hughes||Hughes for Bend||R||BCC4||37,058.93||36,280.45||778.48|
|10||Jack Zika||Jack Zika for State Representative||R||HD53||176,650.38||173,786.17||20,336.78|
|Sum = 2,638,478.32||Sum = 2,575,868.49||Sum = 73,556.22|
|Min = 37,058.93||Min = 36,280.45||Min = -27,477.31|
|Max = 1,099,643.96||Max = 1,098,077.66||Max = 31,283.95|
- Data for this article was collected October 25th.
- Campaigns must report transactions within 7 days, so data may be up to a week old.
- I’ll do this again after the election!